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.