News from Winter Creek Ranch

Spring 2003
Our English walnut trees, variety Hartley, are 19 years old (in 2003) and we now have leaf canopy closure in most of our 8 acre orchard. Our first commercial harvest in 1991 was only 450 lbs/acre. As our trees grew, the harvests have increased, but to our surprise, in alternate years, harvests can be quite low. In 1997 the harvest was a whopping 1,700 lbs/acre, but less than half that the next year. Other orchards (and many nut crops and wild nuts such as acorns) have similar "mast effect" patterns. 1999, was our largest crop, 16,000 lbs, 2000 was smaller, abt 12,000 lbs and 2001 was a disaster with a late spring freeze-- virtually no crop at all. However, our 2002 crop was our biggest ever, nearly 17,000 pounds, and this year looks quite good but not as big as last. 

We are a Registered Organic Grower with the state of California [#57-0075] and use no pesticides, herbicides or manufactured fertilizers. Our organic crop is certified by California Certified Organic Farmers, one of the largest organic certifying organizations in the world. We rely on a nitrogen-fixing leguminous cover crop and organic composts to maintain soil fertility and on mowing to keep weeds under control. This past year our cover crop helped reduce mowing chores until mid summer, then Sam got lots of tractor time. This year has not required any huge capital expenditures and our organic wholesale buyer, Dixon Ridge Farms, for the bulk of our crop (sales through this web site are only a small, but important and growing, part of our farming business) is awaiting our harvest. Sam is getting used to retirement from the graduate ecology faculty of the University of California at Davis and he has become more than just a "gentleman (i.e., money-losing) farmer". One of his favorite activities, when not driving the tractor, is hiking in the hills west of the Capay Valley.

October 2003 As I (Sam) write this paragraph, in mid-October 2003, I look out my office window at a huge crop of walnuts-- not a record but there will be plenty. After the 2001 complete crop failure followed by last years record crop and our first paycheck as a certified (not merely registered) organic grower we are just about out of the redink category.  Our minimum package size will continue to be 5 pounds.  We will not be offering walnuts in the shell as we have found proper storage for in-shell walnuts beyond our capabilities-- they require large amounts of cold storage space. We also are offering neither garlic nor lavender-- those experiments, while successful and fun in botanical terms were less than successful in a business sense-- the effort was exhausting!  However due to a huge demand we will continue to offer "walnutty granola" although at a more realistic price-- former pricing did not cover our material costs, much less labor! 

13 May 2004 It's been a busy winter and spring but most of the chores are now behind me and I look out on a green, leafy orchard undulating in todays mild southern breeze. The first chore of the winter (actually, late fall) is sowing the cover crop of vetch, clover and Medic legumes but this year I was determined to repair the old Tye seed drill first. This necessitated finding the parts-- Tye dealers seemed to have dried up in this part of California. And the repairs weren't simple, once parts came, but finally I got the crop sowed-- late, not until January. Then I had 25 bare root saplings to plant, replacing mortality due to deep bark canker (caused by the bacterium Erwinia rubrifaciens). This meant first putting my three-point tractor-mount backhoe into service and removing the dead trees, some over a foot in diameter. This device puts quite a strain on the lower linkage and, during the first tree removal, I heard a loud crack and the 3/4" cross-shaft holding the links had snapped. Another repair job. I removed dead and planted new trees all winter long, then switched to repairing irrigation headers and sprinklers as the rains ended and the soil began to dry. Finished the irrigation repairs but had to mow the waist to shoulder high grasses (the legumes had not germinated well) first. Switch from the back hoe to the flail mower on the old John Deere and flail away-- takes about 4-5 hrs to mow each direction in my 8 acres, but the first mowing is always slow. Finally the first irrigation, about a month ago, just as trees are putting out first male and, a few days later, female flowers (these are wind pollinated and are not showy like insect pollinated flowers; the leaves come out a few days after the flowers). Then back to tree planting. Anyway, yesterday I planted the last two saplings, though there are still some big, dead trees to be removed-- I'll wait until the roots rot and soften a little. Now it's just mow one weekend and irrigate the next until harvest time approaches next September. And I've got time to do some hiking in the beautiful N. California woodland hills which surround our valley.

19 November 2004  Finally all the autumn chores are done-- harvesting, hulling and drying and shelling.  We shipped over 8000 lbs to our wholesale processor and sent over 1000 to our organic shellers, Maichel  Ranch in Yolo, California.  Tuesday I picked up the shelled meats and yesterday began packing them in 5 lb. lots for labelling and shipping.  Today, a trip to the Post Office as soon as I finish this note.  We mailed out flyers to our previous customers a week or two ago and have seen quite a few orders already.  This year we have revived the "gift pack" of 3 lbs walnuts and 1 lb of walnut-rich granola for $25.00-- it was very popular in past years and many people asked about it.  We're looking forward to your order-- it'll usually be shipped within 24 hours of receipt.

2 November 2005  The orchard is mostly bare of walnuts, as of yesterday, and is ready for the gleaners-- Caroline's grad students from UC Davis will come this weekend. And there is plenty to glean-- the orchard badly needs ground planing and pruning, so my work is far from done this year. A rough ground surface and some high grass around the trees always leaves lots of nuts for pick up after the machine sweeper and vacuum. The web page is now revised for this year-- a good days work on the computer-- my shoulders ache as if I had been raking-- and I've added the granola recipe to the recipes page.

I hope you are not dismayed by the price increase ($6/lb --> $7) but the general price of walnuts, and especially organic walnuts, is up this year. Probably attributable to the discovery that their alpha-linolenic acid content, which can be (arguably?) metabolised to omega-3 fatty acids, are heart-healthy. I'm not arguing. Over the nearly 15 years we've been farming, our long term $$ deficit is still in the thousands. I'm determined to continue to subsidise the American walnut diet but wouldn't mind closing the gap.

We're really pleased that we can offer almonds from our neighboring orchard here in the Capay Valley-- 3Docs is a young orchard operated by our fellow retirees, David Markham and Jane Stallings, both former academics like myself. I just picked them up at the Sacramento airport, back from teaching a 2 week course on teaching assessment methods in Sao Paulo, Brazil, sponsored by the World Bank. Neighbors like these make life interesting in the CV-- David plays bass instruments-- stringed or brass-- and joins others, musically inclined, sometimes here at WCR.

We lost one of the most talented and versatile of these, Will Baker, at the end of the summer. Will played the banjo and dobro, wrote a few good books, raised fine beef cattle, roamed the hills on horseback and kept the radical right troglodytes at bay. And sang a fine tenor cajun-french lyric as well. He'd quit smoking for over 15 years but it still caught up with him. We mourn him and miss his big grin and lean, lanky carcass.

Well, the shadows outside my window are getting long-- the custom is that happy hour starts when the western Blue Ridge hills shadow the ranch and ends when they climb to the top of the Capay Hills to the east. They're climbing, so I'd better get busy if I'm to have time to toast you all-- thanks for your patronage and I'm wishing you a fine autumn season with good friends, family and fortune.

26 November 2006  It's a rainy Sunday afternoon here in the Capay Valley of northern California. The cover crop is seeded in the orchard, as of last Tuesday-- I thought it would rain so I didn't irrigate, which meant I didn't have to repair a dozen or so broken sprinkler heads. But the rain held off until today and I put off the irrigation and now here, at last, is the welcome water from the sky, to save me from sprinkler repairs and germinate my cover seed. When we lived in Seattle (1971-91) I always cherished the few sunny days and rushed to do outdoor chores and games-- I'm still in the habit of feeling like I should be outdoors whenever the sun is shining. Consequently I put off to extreme the indoor chores, like updating this web page, in sunny California. And, I appreciate and am gladdened by these things that we humans do not have under our control and must simply take in our stride.

At the end of last year's season we did a heavy pruning, long overdue. That meant that this years crop would be down, and down it is, about 60% of last years harvest. But a good crop never-the-less, at around 7,000 pounds. However we continue to see tree mortality in our orchard. The maintenance chores are not any lighter and our economies of scale, compared to some of my neighbors who harvest 1000+ acres, are non-existent. As I think I've commented in past years, we are a net subsidizer of American walnut consumption to the tune of around $1000 per year, on average. So this year is decision time for the economics of walnut ranching here at WCR. Barring some unforeseen changes, this will be our last wholesale commercial harvest-- in future years we'll limit ourselves to our small-scale retail web sales. The walnuts I will buy from my larger-scale neighboring walnut farmers, those who are certified organic growers like myself.

This year I have supplemented our old-fashioned Hartley variety with a small quantity of Tulare variety (certified organic) nut meats from Dan Martinez, a large grower near the town of Yolo, about 20 miles from WCR. Some of our retail buyers I will ask about sending a few of these Tulares to supplement our own Hartley nut meats. If you are interested in trying them and comparing to the Hartleys, let us know in your order. The Tulare meats are generally slightly larger and lighter colored than the Hartleys. They tend to crack out in larger pieces, more whole halves. Same price. And, in spite of my proclamation in an earlier edition of the home page, I have obtained some almonds from neighboring 3 Docs farm, in their second year of the 3-year transition to certified organic status. Check the order page to purchase these almonds.

So that's the news from WCR this Fall. I continue to lead hikes around the Yolo/Napa/Lake/Solano/Colusa county area-- check out the Yolohiker newsletter here. Caroline contemplates joining me in retirement from the U of California, Davis at some time in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime we keep the home fires burning, enjoy our good neighbors and friends and are grateful for our continuing peace and fortune-- we wish the same for you. Stay in touch.

7 January 2007 
Well, the decision is all but made-- we have had our last commercial harvest of Hartley walnuts at Winter Creek Ranch. I have sowed the cover crop and the little seed leaves are showing in the winter sun out my studio window. However, I will not water the trees this spring and summer, saving hundreds of dollars in PG&E electricity costs, and will not mow except to whack down the cover crop sometime in late spring. This will also save hundreds of hours of my time in back-breaking work, repairing sprinklers and irrigation valves and riding (and repairing) the tractor and mower. And thousands in harvest, washing and drying costs.

For our faithful retail customers, we plan to become a re-seller of organic walnuts from our neighboring certified organic farms who do not have a retail operation. Mainly, Tulare walnuts, as mentioned above. If I can find organic Hartley walnuts from a large producer I will attempt to secure some for those of you who love this variety (as do Caroline and I). But it's unlikely.

If you would like Hartley walnuts and are in our vicinity next fall, October or later, stop by and you can shake the trees and pick up all you like-- they'll be producing for a while but will gradually become senescent (like me). We started with nearly 400 trees two decades ago and are now down to about 200. Some are big and robust, but only a few-- many more have succumbed to disease and I will remove a few more dead boles and branches this winter. I see one down on the ground right now-- its roots rotted away and no longer supporting the heavy trunk.

Thanks for all the patronage, walnut orders large and small and encouraging emails over the years! We'll try the re-seller route for a while and try to keep you in walnuts.

Sincerely, Caroline and Sam Bledsoe

....and our stable of ranch cats who keep the California giant pocket gopher (probably Thomomys bottae) under control (organically): the girls are Princess Slasher, Sportster and SweetFace; the Patriarch, RumseyTaxi-cat succumbed to natural causes, at about 18 yrs of age, last summer and Cash likewise, but in her prime. And we have two new youngsters, Anthony and Cleopatra (Tony and Cleo) dashing about the place and harassing the older cats.

12 November 2007 
I have a confession to make-- I am addicted to growing walnuts-- and harvesting, and pruning the trees, and mowing the orchard, and maintaining the irrigation system, and repairing the tractor and all the other little and big chores necessary to keep this little orchard producing. In short, I'm a walnut-grower-oholic. In spite of my declaration last January about our last commercial harvest, here it is harvest season and I've done it again.

We had a slightly smaller crop this year, though all the orchards in our area were down somewhat, but I diverted a few more pounds from our wholesaler to retail sales-- maybe this will help the bottom line a little. Everything I said last winter about our problems with disease and senescent trees is true, but we still do have a viable harvest in spite of it all.

Last weekend we had our annual orchard gleaning-- about a dozen of our friends and neighbors (some from out of state) joined us for a weekend of scouring the ground under the trees for the walnuts missed by the commercial harvest machines. The haul amounted to nearly 200 pounds. Our hand-cranked walnut cracker was busy and those not picking the ground or cranking sat around a large table and separated nut meats from cracked shells. A few bottles of local vine product (from our neighbors at Capay Valley Vineyards) lubricated the process and vegies and viands from the BBQ grill kept us all fueled. It was a sunny but not over-warm, fine California autumn day. A very satisfying day. Anyone in the vicinity this time of year is welcome to join in our annual gleaning party-- drop us an email if you'd like an invite next year.

15 May 2008 
As I mentioned on the main page, in the early days of April, when the young and tender, wind-pollinated female walnut flowers were setting fruit, we had several days with a light over-night frost. The tender, very young leaves and fruits at the ends of many small branches are withered and blackened. I haven't done a 'scientific survey' (it's extraordinarily difficult to estimate the size of a walnut crop at this growth stage, at least for me) but it looks like we've lost at least half of our crop and maybe a lot more.

In 2001 we had a heavy frost (18 degrees F, very cold for this part of California) at the same time-- first week of April-- and lost our entire commercial crop. We had a harvest of about 400 lbs of nuts (in-shell) which we consumed ourselves and sent out as holiday presents, but no walnuts for wholesale or retail sale. I don't think the damage is nearly that bad, and we will first sacrifice our wholesale crop which is normally about 3/4 of the total, but our harvest is definitely going to be greatly reduced this Fall. When I do a survey I'll update this note. But, be sure and check with us in October, at the latest.

If we do have a few nuts, I'm going to hold back some in-shell for those of you who like your walnuts un-scathed. They will only be available, if at all, for a very few weeks (maybe even days) after the harvest, normally the 3rd or 4th week of October. And, since we are sold out, be sure and check with my friend and neighbor Jim Haag, at Haag Farms, who frequently has a nice variety of nuts to sell this late in the walnut cycle.

It's nice to look ahead to that time, because right now, as daytime temperatures soar into the 90's, my brother Steve and I are working, in the early mornings only, to mow the cover crop and trim the pasture grasses around the tall sprinklers near each tree. This orchard had been seeded to permanent pasture many years before the walnuts were planted and there is a fierce competition each winter and spring between the legumes of the cover crop (re-seeded each Fall) and the naturally re-seeding, vigorous and tough grass stems-- barley, rye, oats, and Indian grass. Some of these stems are 5' tall and this week they were reduced to near-ground level by my trusty John Deere tractor and 6' wide flail mower. Hot, dusty work, but now the orchard is nearly ready for the summer irrigation rhythm, 60 hours of continuous pumped water every other weekend (when power is cheaper) and more often when the mercury soars into the 103+ regime. The life of a farmer!-- but this is nothing compared to what some of my neigbors-- serious, full-time organic vegetable farmers-- endure (checkout Fiddlers Green, Full Belly and River Dog farms).

Until the harvest...

8 November 2008 
I despaired of the entire crop earlier this year and cancelled our commercial harvest with our neighboring farmer who harvests all the small orchards in the valley. Several of you readers who inquired early in the season received emails beginning "Sorry, but we have no crop...".

Now the good news. I knew last summer there were a few trees in one corner of the orchard which seemed to have withstood the worst effects of the April freeze and had a decent crop of green walnuts. Inspecting again this fall, I estimated that we might have enough walnuts for our internet customers although nothing for our wholesale buyer. But, how to harvest them without commercial machinery?? It's easy enough to walk through the orchard late in the season, when the fall winds have dropped most of the ripe nuts in dry hulls onto the ground, and pick up a couple of buckets full. We have an autumn gleaning party every year for our local friends. But several hundred pounds to deliver to our hulling and shelling operations is just not practical by hand. Then my brother, Steve, got busy with a wide orchard rake and the trusty John Deere with a five foot bucket on the front. He was able to rake under most of the few producing trees and then scoop up nuts, grass, twigs and other orchard debris and get it all into an enormous pile on tarps by the barn. Then came his ingenious idea-- a leaf blower was the key to separating debris from nuts. Steve and Caroline managed to get about 600-700 pounds of nuts, still in their dry, flaky hulls, into two bins and deliver them to the huller/dryer operation of our neighbors. From there, a day later, they went to the sheller. Another day and I got a call to come and pick up a couple of hundred pounds of fresh nut meats.

So we do have some walnuts for your holiday treats. The price of organic nuts continues to increase, not as fast as gasoline this year, but to conform to the price our neighbors charge in the regional Farmers Markets our prices are up to $9/lb this year, in 5# minimum lots. The Holiday Gift Pack is, however, still $35, including 2# of fresh walnut meats and 1# of Walnutty Granola, postage paid in the US-- a bargain!

I'm sure you're wondering what I was doing while Steve and Caroline laboriously harvested and cleaned walnuts. I injured my achilles tendon over a year ago and, when it didn't seem to be healing properly, finally consulted an orthopedic surgeon last summer. Very gratifyingly to me, he allowed as how my tendon was stretched and he could shorten it up. Accordingly, I had a small operation in early October and am now on crutches and looking at 6 more weeks in a fiberglass boot while my tendon heals. Then I get to start physical therapy. So my ranch function is now reduced to pounding the keyboard and watching, from my upstairs study window, the barnyard and orchard where my wife and brother labor faithfully. With breaks to supply my meals and other needs. Needless to say, I'm feeling very grateful-- as well as completely useless. --sam

P.S. 2 December 2008-- Well, I predicted it would be a fast sellout and as of yesterday evening we are completely SOLD OUT of all walnut meats. We were in business less than one month this year-- shades of 2001. I hope this never happens again, but everytime we have a late spring (early April) freeze, we can expect to lose a significant part of our production. Luck of a farmer. I've got one 17 lb box of in-shell walnuts, picked up in the orchard last week and dried in the sunshine, which one buyer turned down-- maybe I'll sell it on eBay. But if you want it for $3/lb, email me.

16 October 2009 
Here it is Walnut harvest time once again and we are ready-- unlike last year we have a bounteous crop and the orchard is mowed flat with a carpet of nuts on the ground from the first wind and rain storm earlier this week. Our harvest crew is ready to begin shaking the remaining nuts from the trees and sweeping and vacuuming the entire acreage into their trucks. They'll be conveyed 1/2 mile south to our neighbor Charlie Gordon who will hull and dry the nuts and return them to us for shelling and packaging and shipment to you. Check our order page and dibs your share of this year's walnut crop.

3 November 2010 
It's a bit late in the year for harvest-- delayed by early rains for each of the two past weekends, making the orchard floor too soft and muddy for the big tree shakers and ground sweeper and vacuum to operate. But the trees are ready and lots of nuts already on the ground from the wind. The crew has promised to be here soon and I'm about to order the big gondola trailers to be ready to move our walnuts from the huller/cleaner operation (at our neighbors, Gordon Farms) to our wholesaler Dixon Ridge Farms. But first I'll pull out a couple of thousand pounds and transport them myself to our small-scale shelling operation in Yolo, Ca, about 20 miles from Winter Creek Ranch. I leave my old pick-up, Art (the Artful Dodger, a 1968 Dodge), with four big plastic bins in his bed for Bob Gordon to load with in-shell nuts before they go to Dixon Ridge. It then takes me two trips in Art, whose capacity is 1/2 ton and and whose springs, like my knees, are a little the worse for wear. But Art is always happy to help out, and I'm always grateful for his assistance. Russ Maichel runs the shelling operation and my crop is small potatoes compared to the hundreds of tons he processes. But I always take a pound of Walnutty Granola for him and his wife and he always fits my nuts in and gives me a call to pick them up a few days later. Then Caroline and I are ready to pack them up and ship them off to you, in time for holiday munching and gifting.

12 December 2011
Well, I'm the tardy student this year-- all the harvest work has been done and I'm only now getting to write up the news. It was our lowest harvest since the early 90s when the young orchard was just getting into production (aside from the two years when spring freezes destroyed 90% of the crop). Hence the sad news that this will, in fact, be our last year in commercial production. It's just not economically in the cards to continue to shell out more thousands of dollars in production costs than we make in wholesale and retail sales-- especially after the 7.5hp irrigation pump died last spring, a $6000 repair, well in excess of our annual gross. So, although I confessed (see 12 November 2007) to my addiction to walnut growing, eventually even the hardened addict has to go “cold turkey” when the drug of choice is priced beyond his means. With luck, my Higher Powers will see me through. In the meantime, please partake of the final harvest before our New Years price increase.

What will happen to all those trees? We started with nearly 400 and now have perhaps 100 in production but most of those have many dead branches (from the bacterial disease of the cambium which slowly spreads). The orchard will go fallow next year with no water but the winter and spring rains. I'll mow once or twice to keep the weedy grasses below fire hazard level. (Our orchard was a permanent pasture for a stud cattle farm before Jim and Gail Sims put in the walnuts in the early 80s-- those grasses persist even now.) And we'll water a couple of robust trees near the homestead to keep walnuts on our table and provide the granola makings. Don't hesitate to contact our neighboring orchardists, Jim and Clair Haag, when your walnut supplies run thin and we've got the SOLD OUT sign up.

9 January 2015
What can I say?-- looks like three years slipped by while I wasn't looking. Or reviewing and writing about the farm adventures at Winter Creek Ranch. The latest news is that, in spite of the above paragraph from 2011, we have found a way to keep ourselves and at least a few of you in walnuts. Our chorus, the Woodland Chamber Singers , needed a fund raiser when they were invited to sing at Carnegie Hall last year (2014) and we realised, in spite of dwindling yields we still had lots of walnuts by non-commercial standards. For the last three Fall seasons our hardy singing colleagues have laboriously picked walnuts by hand from our orchard grounds and we have split 50-50 the ultimate hulled and shelled out product with them. They sold theirs to friends and relations to finance the chorus; we ate our share and continued to sell a few to loyal internet customers to pay the irrigation and other farm bills. A win-win for us all.

But we have a new farm endeavor, started for the first time this year. We have only two, medium-size olive trees (variety Mission) and I usually pick a 5-gallon bucket or two, pickle them in lye over a week or so, rinse and store them in brine for our salad and munching use through the year. But last Fall those two trees had an incredible bumper crop with branches weighted down, just begging to be harvested. Oil is the highest and most precious calling for olives but the catch is in the processing-- our neighbors in the Capay Valley, the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, built a huge and beautiful processing plant but, alas, they need a ton of olives for their enormous machinery to operate. Then we found a new, smaller start-up just up the highway whose smaller machinery ($100,000 from the Italian manufacturer) could be filled with only 300 lbs of olives. A couple of back-breaking days of labor filled seven five-gallon buckets with olives, weighing out to 230 lbs. A neighbor sold us another 70 lbs and we were in business. It took about 4 hours to load our fruit into the hopper of this gleaming, screaming stainless steel machine and watch the grinding, mixing and centrifuging operations (all totally automated) until a thin stream of yellow-green oil began to emerge from a spout at the bottom. Sparkling but not completely clear at first, this olio nuovo had a bright and slightly picante flavor in the back of the throat. Our yield was 3-1/2 gallons and is now stored in an old wine jereboam to settle and clarify. But we're enjoying it now and plotting the replacement of dead and dying walnut trees with young whips of bare root olive trees.

Life proceeds apace, ever interesting, joyous and satisfying here in our fruitful and green little valley of northern California. Thanks for your interest and your walnut order! --sam

Wishing you a joyous and healthy New Year and a 2015 in which your dreams and ambitions are realized!-- Caroline and Sam Bledsoe (and all the ranch cats)
  [Home] [Beginning of News Chronicle-- Spring 2003]