Small grower makes the most of walnuts

LINDEN, Calif. — Maybe old dogs can learn new tricks.

After five generations of ranching in San Joaquin County, Calif., the Sitkin family has added flair to the walnuts they grow in their orchards.

“Our ranch, whimsically named Old Dog Ranch, caught on when it was named after my parents’ dogs, Mollie and Poppy,” said Mollie Sitkin. “Both dogs were very old when my parents purchased some land from my great grandmother. My dad liked that one dog so much that they named me after her, too.”

Sitkin grew up on the ranch near Linden, and though she said she wasn’t always involved in it, she has reinvigorated it with unique products she makes from the organic walnuts they grow.

She started the family’s value-added line of snack products about 5 years ago.

“The raw honey-and-sea salt walnut butter is one of my favorite products,” she said. “Somehow it is super-healthy but also tastes like cookie dough.”

They also grow the organic spices that they use in their flavored walnuts and keep bees for the honey that goes into their walnut butter. All of their products — with the exception of the whiskey spice walnuts — are made with 100 percent gluten-free ingredients.

“…We’ve been proud to watch their business grow as Mollie has developed the value-added side of her family’s walnut business,” said Brie Mazurek, communications director of CUESA — the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture — which operates the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market in San Francisco. Old Dog Ranch has been part of the market for 3 years.

“The ranch is a family operation,” Sitkin said. “My dad, Roger, farms our walnuts and seasonings and I hand-make our products, keep our bees and run our food business.”

The ranch has three orchards: two organic orchards totaling 27 acres and one 40-acre conventional orchard, she said.

Going organic is just one way the family farms sustainably and responsibly, she said.

“We use drip irrigation to conserve water, build healthy soil with cover crops and manure, and choose crop varieties that flourish in our microclimate here on the banks of the Calaveras (River),” Sitkin said.

Walnuts thrive in the deep, rich topsoil. Old Dog Ranch grows Chandler walnuts for their excellent flavor, golden color, and easy-to-crack shells, and for the trees’ natural resilience.

Chandlers leaf and flower later than other varieties, making them naturally resistant to winter frost damage and rainy-season blight.

“As a rule, walnuts are not hard particularly hard to grow,” she said. “The problem is growing consistently high-quality organic walnuts can take some extra care time and experience.”

The harvest lasts about a day and all the nuts are machine harvested.

In spite of the beautiful weather and excellent soil conditions, there are pitfalls.

“The biggest challenge facing the growers is changing market conditions and price fluctuations,” she said.

Roundtable will focus on organic peaches

The next installment of the Farmer Roundtable Series at the Cloud Mountain Farm Center in Everson, Wash., will focus on growing organic peaches.
The workshop will be 5-7 p.m. Monday, July 16, at the center, 6906 Goodwin Road.
Participants will be able to ask questions and discuss the advantages of growing peaches, including the economics and potential for profits.
Tom Thornton, the executive director of Cloud Mountain, will facilitate the event and answer questions.
Registration can be submitted on the Cloud Mountain Farm Center website  or by email at jane@cloudmountainfarmcenter. org.

New podcast offers advice to California farmers

Two enterprising farm advisors with the University of California’s cooperative extension have begun a podcast that will focus on tree crops and other produce grown in the Central Valley.

Called “Growing the Valley,” the podcast will have a new episode every two weeks, with each episode focused on news growers can use, such as managing specific pests, irrigation techniques, alerts about what to watch out for, and what tasks to take care of at particular times of the year.

It’s the brainchild of Phoebe Gordon and Luke Milliron, both UCCE orchard systems advisers in the Central Valley, who wanted a good additional way to connect with growers and industry professionals, outside their regular work.

“People learn in different ways, and a podcast is portable, can be listened to while driving, and can be listened to multiple times, unlike a field day talk,” Gordon said. “Many of us in the ag world spend a lot of time in our trucks and it’s a great time to learn new things.”

UCCE has several widely read blogs by farm advisers, and specific websites focused on integrated pest management , fruits and nuts  and weed management. The podcast will be a new tool for outreach.

It will cover their own specialty areas, tree crops such as almonds, pistachios, walnuts, figs, prunes and cling peaches. It will also focus on other crops grown in the valley and elsewhere in the state.

“It would be fun to do episodes on other crops since we have some specialty industries scattered through the state, but I think we both want to make sure we keep focused on the people we serve,” Milliron said.

The podcast will feature brief research reports and timely topical information from the hosts, plus interviews with other UCCE farm advisers, specialists and professors, as well as researchers from the USDA, other universities and industry representatives. It is aimed at current and future farmers, pest control advisers, industry representatives and the public.

The first full-length episode is a segment with a weed advisor on herbicide resistant weeds that are a concern for orchards. Gordon is working on an irrigation series, and Milliron is working on a pest series. Future episodes will focus on winter chill, pre-plant fumigation and frost protection.

“Since we will be posting episodes fairly frequently, we will have the ability to remind growers about important tasks, such as navel orangeworm sprays during hull split, or starting their winter sanitation program,” Gordon said.

Begun in June, the podcast has already received a positive response, with a few hundred listeners tuning in. It’s available for free on the website, and via Apple iTunes and Google Play Music.

In aquaponic farming, modules minimize risks

MONMUTH, Ore. — Aquaponics is gaining popularity in Oregon, and as producers build their systems they can reduce their risk by starting small and designing their operations in modules, a commercial aquaponic producer says.

Doing that allows a scalable operation that can be more easily expanded and isolates any problems that arise, said Joel Kelly, CEO of Live Local Organic, a commercial aquaponic farm in Milwaukie, Ore.

Aquaponics is a system of farming that combines aquaculture — raising fish — with hydroponics — growing produce in nutrient-rich water. The produce uses the fish waste to gain nutrients and simultaneously cleans the water, reducing the amount of water needed to produce the crops.

The Oregon Aquaculture Association sponsored a conference on aquaponics last weekend at Western Oregon University. In the Pacific Northwest, tilapia and coy fish are usually used in aquaponics, said Kate Wildrick, co-chair of the conference. She said the number of aquaponic farms in the region is still relatively small.

Kelly discussed some of the challenges of aquaponic farming on a commercial scale at the conference.

“I think (aquaponics) is possible on any kind of a scale, but I think what has to happen is it has to be modular,” he said.

The idea is to take a small, simple system that works and then replicate it as many times as you have space or resources for in order to produce more crops and fish, Kelly said.

“Not everything that works at a small scale works at a large scale,” he said.

There are some big benefits that come with having a system set up in multiple self-sustained pieces, Kelly said.

“When we modularize everything, if there is something bad that happens to a tank … it is just contained in that one little area so we can still keep producing and keep supplying our customers if there is a fish die off or some kind of disease,” making the method fairly low risk, he said.

However, profit margins are still fairly low, Kelly said. Most aquaponic farms raise herbs, lettuce or some other type of greens because the grow time is a lot shorter than, say, a tomato. A shorter grow time means less risk, he said.

Kelly said no one he is aware of has been able to successfully grow fruit-bearing plants such as strawberries or tomatoes in a commercial setting for profit, but that is where he sees the industry going in the future.

“The golden ticket and what we are really trying to figure out is how to produce something like tomatoes or strawberries or cucumbers profitably,” Kelly said.

“If you are growing basil or lettuce and you plant your crop, four weeks after you plant it you are going to be able to harvest some of it, eight weeks you will be able to harvest pretty much all of it,” he said.

“If you plant a tomato plant … you have to wait four months for it to start producing,” Kelly said. “So if something goes wrong in that four-week period it’s like, OK, you restart and then in another four weeks you will be fine, but if something goes wrong in month four for the tomato plant your whole four months is gone and you have to restart and you don’t get anything.”

The other struggle with fruit-bearing plants such as tomatoes or cucumbers is space. Herbs and greens don’t require as much space to grow as a cucumber plant, Kelly said, because a cucumber grows up and out while something like basil is more contained.

Kelly said the aquaponic community should be seeing more variety of produce in the future that they can farm successfully for profit.

“What we have now, they’re profitable, they’re good. I think we have figured out how to do that,” Kelly said, “I think in the next five to 10 years, we will have a lot more products that can be produced profitably.”

OSU will host caneberry field day July 11

OSU’s  North Willamette Research and Extension Center will host its caneberry field day July 11 starting at 1 p.m.

The center is located at 15210 NE Miley Road, Aurora, Ore. The event is free. Participants should meet near the blackberry demonstration plot, east of the parking lot.

The agenda includes:

• Introductions, including the new Strawberry – Caneberry Extension Faculty member & team at the NWREC, Javier Fernandez-Salvador.

• “New herbicide registration in caneberries — Quinclorac” (Dr. Marcelo Moretti, weed management assistant professor, horticulture, OSU).

• “Updates on management of Spotted Wing Drosophila” (Drs. Cherre Da Silva and Vaughn Walton, horticulture, OSU).

• “Polyethylene and biodegradable plastic mulches for improved establishment of tissue culture transplants in red raspberry” (Huan Zhang, graduate student, and Dr. Lisa DeVetter, Assistant Professor, WSU).

• “Are drip-line applications of fumigant and nematicides effective under plastic mulch during raspberry establishment?” (Dr. Eric Gerbrandt, Sky Blue Horticulture Ltd., B.C., Canada)

• Refreshment Break – (Brent Radke and Brian Yorgey, faculty research assistants, Department of Food Science. & Technology, OSU; Patrick Jones, NWREC; Mary Peterson, USDA-ARS, HCRU).

• “Using drones to monitor growth and irrigation needs of raspberry” (Dr. David Bryla, USDA-ARS, HCRU).

• “Exploring genetic variation of blackberries” (Dr. Jason Zurn, Postdoc, USDA-ARS, NCGR).

• “Update on on-farm variety trials” (Julie Pond and Tom Peerbolt, Northwest Berry Foundation).

• “Rose Stem Girdler – what do we know about this pest in caneberries?” (Patrick Jones, Faculty Research Assistant, OSU-NWREC; Robin Rosetta, Associate Professor, NWREC; Tom Peerbolt, Northwest Berry Foundation).

• “Evaluate and walk through the caneberry breeding plots.”

For more information, go to the event website.

‘Artificial fruit’ could control spotted wing drosophila

Two products under development by Oregon State University could give Northwest berry growers new options for controlling the spotted wing drosophila, a particularly harmful type of fruit fly.

One product in particular, described as an “artificial fruit” that lures the pests away from the berries without directly competing against the crop, has Bernadine Strik excited.

“This is cutting-edge work,” said Strik, a berry crops specialist for OSU. “These patent-pending products have me doing a happy dance.”

Details about the product were limited — the patent is, after all, still pending. But Valerio Rossi-Stacconi, who works in the OSU Department of Horticulture, said it is a food grade attractant that can work for both conventional and certified organic growers.

Trials have shown the product reduces the number of fruit flies in berries by as much as 76 percent, Rossi-Stacconi said.

“We are very happy about this,” he said. “These keep the insect from the fruit throughout the whole fruiting process.”

The “artificial fruit” development may be available commercially by 2020, Rossi-Stacconi said.

Researchers shared the latest updates and information with about 40 growersduring Strawberry Field Day at the OSU North Willamette Research & Extension Center in Aurora, Ore.

The other product, designed for blueberries to thicken the skin and protect against the flies, could be available as early as next year.

Spotted wing drosophila is troublesome for berry and stone fruit growers because, unlike other drosophila species, it infests them early during ripening, rather than later as they rot.

According to a study by the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics at the University of California, yield losses can range up to 80 percent depending on the crop and location. In 2008, Oregon, Washington and California accounted for 76 percent of total U.S. raspberry, blackberry, strawberry, blueberry and cherry production.

Assuming maximum yield loss, the combined loss at the farm gate for all three states would be approximately $2.5 billion, including $1.5 billion for strawberries alone.

Oregon grows relatively few acres of strawberries, with just 1,800 statewide. Most are sold to food processors, though Strik said growers have increasingly tapped in to fresh markets over the last 15 years, which has added value to the crop.

“They are really relying on that higher value fresh market,” Strik said. “That has really helped our growers stay competitive.”

The field day also gives growers the chance to hear from experts about the latest information and cultivars to adopt in their fields, Strik said. Other presentations included fungicide resistance and an evaluation of the newest strawberry selections in breeding plots at the research station — with names like Sweet Sunrise, Puget Crimson and Rutgers Scarlet.

“Here’s an opportunity where they can come compare the varieties being grown, and see some of the stuff we are close to potentially naming,” Strik said. “We also want their input.”

Virginia Stockwell, a research plant pathologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Corvallis, Ore., said fungicide resistance is now present in Oregon strawberries. She led a study isolating the fungus that causes gray mold in strawberries, known as Botrytis cinerea, and exposing it to several different fungicides.

The results showed resistance to multiple fungicides was common, Stockwell said.

“The number of tools you have to manage the disease is greatly limited,” she said.

Stockwell urged growers to use multiple methods to control gray mold. It is especially important, she said, to limit where spores can grow by keeping a dry canopy and clean field.

“That’s the cycle we’re most concerned with, is spore production,” she said.

There’s still time to register for OSU’s Small Farm School

Oregon State University’s Small Farm School is still accepting registrations to attend the all-day event at Clackamas Community College on July 12.

The program covers a variety of topics such as small engine troubleshooting and repair, the economics of poultry, hand tool maintenance, raising ducks and geese, ergonomics for farmers, urban farming, and forage and pasture management.

Nick Andrews, director of Small Farm School, said the program is modeled after Tree School, another OSU program that has become popular.

Andrews said that with many small-scale farms in Oregon’s Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties, and beyond, there’s a need for this type of practical course.

The goal of the program, Andrews said, is to help farmers gain practical experience. For example, in the engine repair workshop, attendees may be working hands on with small engines and learning how to troubleshoot issues.

While the target audience for Small Farm School is found in the first word “small,” the program is open to anyone, at any experience level. Andrews noted that the program can be a good way for larger scale producers to learn another type of farming and diversify their operation.

Registration for the event can be completed on OSU Small Farms website and the cost of registering for the event is $75, and will go up to $85 after June 28t.  Although the website states that registration closes on July 5th, Andrews said same day signups at the event will also be allowed.

Wallowa County’s Hawkins sisters fine with fowl

It’s a lovely June day and Nora and Mary Hawkins along with employee Laurie Waters are busy processing 40 Cornish cross chickens in preparation for the upcoming Joseph Saturday Market. Another 20 or so capons are being prepared for Portland customers.

This, says Mary Hawkins, is how they like to spend their weekends in Oregon’s Wallowa County. She’s not joking.

“It’s a good workout, and I love that part of it,” said Mary. “That’s been like ‘all on’ what I wanted to do. Every other job I have is a ton of thinking and responding and communicating. This is ‘how fast can I do the same thing over and over again’— and I like that. Probably wouldn’t like it for 60 hours a week.”

But the sisters don’t spend 60 hours a week as poultry processors. Like many farmers and ranchers, they have day jobs.

Mary is office manager for Nez Perce Wallowa Homeland, host of the Tamkaliks celebration in Wallowa; Nora is a state-licensed midwife. The sisters spend mornings, nights and weekends on the agricultural business with the help of employees Laurie Waters, Landra Scovlin and Michaela Shane. Raising and processing birds is a six-months-of the-year job.

It’s successful in many ways but not necessarily financially, they contend. The Hawkins Sisters Ranch is a snapshot of the real cost of raising quality meat.

It is one of two Oregon Department of Agriculture small poultry licensed processing facilities in Eastern Oregon, taking advantage of new rules that allow small-enterprise farms that process 20,000 or fewer birds per year to meet sanitary and other rules without having to be USDA inspected. The chickens can only be marketed in Oregon.

Their facility is housed in a new 13-by-40-foot “Old Hickory Shed” that has been fitted to meet state sanitation requirements. They’re serious about sanitation. Mary will not even touch a turkey chick if she’s been working with chickens or vice versa. The interior of the facility is spotless, even in the midst of processing birds.

The operation is on their father Merel Hawkins’ 300-acre farm on Bear Creek Road in Wallowa. Merel is retired, and most of the land is leased for cattle grazing, so the sisters are getting the use of the little space required for the chicken business free.

In this facility, on this land, the sisters will butcher approximately 6,000 chickens over the next six months.

Other families who bring in birds from their own flocks for processing will have raised 60 percent of those birds. The sisters charge approximately $5 per bird for processing. They sell their own birds for $5 per pound, predominantly to Wallowa County customers who have spoken for them well in advance. Approximately 400 birds are sold to Portland customers through Carman Ranch Direct.

Yet, even with no mortgage and selling chicken at $5 per pound, raising chickens humanely on naturally sourced custom-designed feed doesn’t pencil out.

“On paper it’s ‘Ah, I shouldn’t be doing this.’” Mary said. “The correct choice, on paper, is ‘do not do this.’”

Mary took a business course a few years ago that required rigorous number-crunching and proved that financial reality.

And yet the Hawkins Sisters are still in the chicken business. Their employees earn wages.

“I’ve analyzed, and I think it’s just me being stubborn,” Mary said. “I think: ‘surely there’s a way to raise chickens on a small scale!’ I think I do it because it’s a puzzle (how to make it pay).”

And it’s hard to quit when you’re successful on so many other levels.

“It’s an amazing product that people really want, and there’s a huge demand,” Mary said. “Flavor and texture are wonderful, people remark on it all the time.”

They’ve already met and bested many challenges. First challenge, growing a healthy bird. The Cornish cross bird is the most economical to grow because it has been developed to grow fast and huge.

Other chicken breeds may take up to six months to reach butcher weight and years to reach maturity — the factory-fed Cornish cross can weigh as much as 10 pounds live weight in 56 days and yield a six pound roaster.

Feeding a fast-growing chicken up to that weight that quickly can lead to a high mortality rate. Birds can die of heart failure, leg deformities from too much weight to leg strength, infections from lying down full-time. The butchered bird can have an enlarged heart and a flaccid pale liver that must be discarded.

The Hawkins Sisters have solved these problems through their growing and feeding philosophy. They feed their own custom blend with no corn or soy, and they don’t confine and overfeed to make what Mary calls a “Frankenstein Bird.”

Their chickens are vigorous, docile and seem happy. The sisters reckon the average weight of their eight- to 10-week old bird, when processed, is about four pounds.

Right now, the third week of June, there are 325 new arrivals in the Hawkins brooder barn. The chick brooder space is a large, clean and roomy shed with both fresh air and six warming lamps. The sisters will order a new batch of chicks every four weeks through September.

A few hundred feet away in the hay pasture are the “outdoor” growing houses; homemade arched chicken structures that allow the growing birds plenty of protected space but provide freedom to come and go into the attached grassy yard. Although not free range, they have access to grass and bugs and are fed the Hawkins locally grown custom blend feed.

The operation will go dormant by Thanksgiving. The turkeys, a new endeavor, are expected to yield a few dollars over the financial break-even point.

Tips for raising Merino sheep in the Willamette Valley

CRABTREE, Ore. — Vickie Manns’ goal is to raise sheep that produces wool so fine it feels soft next to the skin.

When she first saw Merinos 32 years ago while living with her husband’s family on a sheep and cattle station in New South Wales, Australia, she knew instantly that they would give her the wool she wanted.

But everyone, including her husband, told her she couldn’t raise Merinos in Oregon’s Willamette Valley because it rained too much. She tried anyway and made it work.

Manns lives with her husband, Peter, on the 20-acre farm in Crabtree that her dad inherited from her grandfather. Born and raised a city girl in nearby Albany, she got started in her livestock adventure years ago when someone gave her an orphan lamb. Her learning process has been trial-and-error.

“There wasn’t anyone raising Merinos in Oregon when I bought my first ram and two ewes that originated from Mendenhall Wool Ranch in Loma Rica, California,” Manns said. “Of course, like everyone said it would, the first two years the fleece was ruined when it felted on their backs from too much rain.

“I put rainproof coats on them thinking just keeping the rain off would solve the problem but my fleece quality didn’t improve until I changed my shearing time.”

She gets the best results now by shearing right after the cold, dry period near the end of winter before the spring rains start.

The Merino, instrumental in southwestern Spain’s development in the 15th and 16th centuries, was further refined in the late 18th century in the hot, dry, semi-arid areas of Australia. The breed is prized for its fine wool used in making lingerie and high-fashion garments. Manns’ Merino wool tested between 15.5 to 18 microns. The finer or lower the number of microns, the softer and more expensive the wool.

“I am constantly looking and trying to find wool processing mills close to home so I can keep the money in Oregon but so far haven’t found any that are prepared for the extra strength grease cutting, et cetera, that it takes to wash and further process the Merino’s wool,” Manns said. “I do my own dying and then send my wool to Canada because shipping is cheaper than sending it to the East Coast.”

Once it is processed into roving and yarn, she sells it at fiber arts shows such as the Scio Fat Lamb and Wool Show, Black Sheep Gathering and the Oregon Flock and Fiber Festival.

The Merino averages 99-220 pounds for ewes and up to 250 pounds for rams. Manns has had to make several adjustments to accommodate her 5-foot-2 frame and Crabtree’s annual 49 inches of rainfall. To stay ahead of the ever-present problem with foot rot she trains her rams to lift their feet like horses.

“I realize that the Merino is a specialty flock in the Willamette Valley and not a commercial one, but I love everything about them,” Manns said. “When you are determined, you can make things happen.”

Manns can be reached by email at

Water shortages expected in much of Oregon

Low winter snowpack combined with a drier-than-usual spring and rapid snowmelt will likely translate into critically low water supplies across parts of Oregon heading into summer, according to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The NRCS released its June basin report for Oregon, and the outlook is bleak, especially in southern and eastern Oregon. Gov. Kate Brown has already declared a drought emergency in Klamath, Grant, Harney and Lake counties, while the U.S. Drought Monitor shows nearly the entire state in some level of drought, from “abnormally dry” to “severe drought.”

Unusually warm weather in May led to rapid melting of already limited snowpack, said Scott Oviatt, snow survey supervisor and hydrologist for the NRCS. Of 81 real-time snow monitoring stations, only five still have snow as of June 1.

Snowpack is critical for water management, since it acts as a natural reservoir gradually replenishing streams into spring and summer. However, most of Oregon’s snowpack peaked around 70 percent of normal and melted away quickly over the last month.

Snow has almost completely disappeared statewide, except for basins in the far northeast corner of Oregon, which are still clinging to 27 percent of normal levels. Many sites melted out one to two weeks ahead of schedule, and several higher elevation sites had snow melting up to 2 1/2 times faster than usual.

Streams in the drought-stricken Klamath, Harney, Goose Lake and John Day basins are projected to run just 26-82 percent of normal levels through September. Forecasts improve closer to the Columbia River and west of the Cascades, which received closer to normal snowpack.

The Umatilla, Walla Walla and Grande Ronde rivers should experience near-average stream flows in northeast Oregon. The Willamette Basin, home to more than 1 million acres of farmland, should see streams flows ranging from 48 to 87 percent of normal, along with the Hood, Sandy and Upper Deschutes basins.

In southwest Oregon, forecasters anticipate the Rogue and Umpqua rivers will be slightly lower, at 47 to 81 percent of average.

Reservoirs remain a bright spot in this year’s water outlook. Most of the state’s major reservoirs are holding 70 to 110 percent volume, with the Umatilla, Walla Walla and Willow basin reservoirs faring best at 95 to 111 percent full.

The NRCS is advising irrigators to plan accordingly for water shortages, “especially in southern and southeastern Oregon where the snowpack was the lowest this season.”