From Conventional Walnut Farming to Growing (and Processing) Green

This is a guest post by NRDC Growing Green Award-winner Russ Lester. Lester won $10,000 for his leading energy efficiency techniques—converting waste walnut shells into energy—and organic walnut growing methods.

Russ Lester is turning walnut shells into fuel that helps with processing his company's organic walnuts.

Farming is in my roots.

I was born and raised in the Valley of the Hearts Delight, or as most people now refer to it: the Silicon Valley. My dad, grandfather and many before them were all farmers, and I grew up working in their prune orchards. The prunes were conventionally grown, so that meant applying fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. It wasn’t until my chemistry and botany classes in college, though, that I started realizing the potential effects of all these chemicals.

After college, I decided to follow in my father’s footsteps and farm. In 1979, my wife and I bought a 68-acre run down almond orchard in Winters, California, and set to work getting the orchard back into shape.

Slowly, I began planting walnut trees, but the young trees left me with little revenue. With tight finances, I started working with pest control advisors to find a way to use fewer pesticides and herbicides. We began employing the new idea of Integrated Pest Management, reducing the chemicals used in our orchard, and were pleasantly surprised to see that it worked!

It was a tragic wake-up call that helped me decide to take the leap and transition our farm to organic.

In the late 80s, doctors discovered that my dad had Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Around the same time, we learned of a study linking this type of lymphoma to herbicides used in farming. Although research couldn’t directly link my dad’s cancer to the chemicals used in his prune orchards, watching his disease progress made me reconsider even the few pesticides that we still used.

My wife and I decided, for our young family’s health, to take the next step. My father’s death in 1989 marked the end of our use of conventional chemicals.

Not many farmers were going organic at that time, and I would be lying if I didn’t admit that the journey was frustrating and challenging at times. With the help of forward-thinking researchers, entomologists and organizations, we were able to develop a whole-systems approach to our sustainable practices for Dixon Ridge Farms that we continue to improve upon today.

In our walnut orchards, we keep the soil fertile with a perennial no-till cover crop and composted manure. The cover crop and hedgerows attract beneficial insects and wildlife. Not tilling reduces (or eliminates) soil erosion and run-off, maintains earthworm habitat, retains soil moisture and reduces global warming pollution. A new overhead sprinkler system allows for our organic farming practices while delivering the even and efficient water application our trees need.

Some of our most exciting projects go far beyond the orchard. Organic walnut processing is better for the earth – we don’t use chemical fumigants or bleach to prepare walnuts for sale – but it is energy intensive. We wanted to make our processing just as sustainable as our growing, and we started with the easy choices of using recycled materials in our packaging and putting solar panels on our buildings.

Then we took on the bigger (and more fun) challenge of reducing our energy use. With millions of pounds of walnuts processed each year, you can imagine the huge piles of shells we are left with. We’re now turning those shells into electricity and gas, and using this energy to dry and process our walnuts. We are saving energy, cutting our costs and truly trying to sustain our work and sustain the land.

Being recognized by the Natural Resources Defense Council with a 2010 Growing Green Award will help us continue to spread our organic methods beyond Dixon Ridge, to other growers and processors who fear that it’s too costly or difficult to make the switch.

Every year, we are learning more and improving on the whole-systems approach we started over 20 years ago. After all, sustainability and farming certainly are not stagnant.

This piece, courtesy of the Natural Resources Defense Council, originally appeared on the Onearth Greenlight.

Image Credit: Creative Commons photo by ocean_of_stars

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4 thoughts on “From Conventional Walnut Farming to Growing (and Processing) Green”

  1. It is interesting to me that Russ refers to his father’s orchards as “prune” orchards rather than “plum” orchards. As far as I know, prunes are dried plums. Is there something new?

  2. Diane,
    Prunes are dried plums, but the varieties that are used for that are different from many of the plums that are grown for the fresh market.

    By the way, the image at the top of the post (which isn’t from this orchard) seems to have a lot of insect frass in it.

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