Food & Drink

Growing next generation of farmers in Winters

“Walnuts have a green husk around the shells. When the husks turn a yellow-green and begin to split, they are ready to harvest (usually by mid-September),” says Matt Mariani of the Mariani Nut Co.
“Walnuts have a green husk around the shells. When the husks turn a yellow-green and begin to split, they are ready to harvest (usually by mid-September),” says Matt Mariani of the Mariani Nut Co. aseng@sacbee.com

Central California is a patchwork of small farms, many run by hard-working solitary farmers in their senior years. Eighty-year-old George Suyenaga, who farms four acres in Woodland, summed up the future from his standpoint: “The young ones are interested in other things. Farming is hard work. Who can blame them?”

In the small town of Winters about 15 miles west of Davis, there’s a different story playing out. Winters is home to Mariani Nut Company, currently in its fourth generation of family farmers. This new brood, several in their 30s with young children of their own, grew up working in the family’s 4,000 acres of walnuts. They earned spending money by picking up walnuts and cleaning groves. Then, one-by-one they packed up for college and left to study the business end of farming. As they returned to the family business, they were ready to blend what they learned in college with their farming background.

Matt Mariani, a Cornell University graduate with a major in agriculture business, currently works in the marketing end of the operation. He deals with buyers from North America, Europe, Asia and Australia who come here because three-fourths of the world’s supply of English walnuts are grown in the central part of the state.

“I just grew up with the walnut business,” said Mariani. “I guess I always expected to be involved in the family business. Many family members have left, like I did to go to college, but most of them have returned. The rural lifestyle is something we all appreciate. We all live here. We all work together. Everyone has different jobs and responsibilities. It’s a team approach.” he said. “We probably have about 20 family members working the farm, some actually in the groves, others more involved with the operations and marketing end. Our family reunions are huge.”

The Mariani family got their start in California agriculture in the early 1900s. The original immigrants came from Croatia. They bought farms in the Santa Clara Valley, where they farmed fruit and nuts. As developers bought up farm land, the family progressively moved closer to Central California, eventually landing in Winters. Matt Mariani’s father, Jack and Jack’s cousin Dennis founded the Mariani Nut Co. in 1972, expanding the business with a nut processing facility. Forty years later Mariani Nut Company is one of the largest privately held walnut and almond processors in the world. They process, not only the nuts grown in the family groves, but those from about 1,000 smaller farms in the region.

Nearly all of the California walnut crop – nearly 500,000 tons a year – is grown in California’s Central Valley. California walnuts account for 99 percent of the commercial U.S. supply. How the area surrounding Sacramento became the world’s major supplier is an interesting story. According to the California Walnut Board, what we know of as English walnuts were originally found in ancient Persia. They were traded along the Silk Road regions of the Asian continent to the Mediterranean Sea and eventually to English merchant marines. The merchant marines traded them throughout their travels. Because it was the English who traded them, Persian walnuts became known as English walnuts. The nuts have never been grown commercially in England.

As pilgrims settled North America, they brought walnuts with them. Eventually the Franciscan Padres who founded the California missions, planted them. The first commercial trees were grown in Southern California, but they were not truly successful because of soil and water issues. Luther Burbank, the American botanist who lived in Santa Rosa in the early 1900s, developed a method of grafting English walnut trees to native California black walnuts. The technique gave the trees a strong rootstock well-suited to Northern California’s climate and soil. With that development, the commercial walnut industry migrated north into the Central Valley of California.

“We still graft English walnuts to black walnut and paradox rootstock,” said Mariani. “You can see this grafting in most mature walnut trees. After planting saplings, it takes about five to six years before they produce a crop. If left alone, they will live 100 year or more, but the trees stay productive for 35 to 50 years. When they begin to decline we take them out and start over. We try to plant whole groves at the same time so that we have a consistent age, which makes maintaining them easier.”

In the grand scheme of farming, walnuts are a relatively easy crop to grow. According to Mariani, they have few issues with insects and other pests and as long as they have good soil and adequate irrigation, they thrive in our Mediterranean climate.

“We begin harvest in mid-September,” he explained. “Walnuts have a green husk around the shells. When the husks turn a yellow-green and begin to split, they are ready to harvest. First we blow debris out of the groves. Then we bring in shakers which are attached to the base of the trees. The nuts fall to the ground and are swept into a pile down the center of the rows. They are picked up and transported to the processing plant where husks are removed and they are sorted for size and quality, then shipped or packaged for retail sales.”

With modern equipment, harvest is relatively easy. “Three workers can harvest 100 acres in just a few days,” Mariani said.

This year, like most Californians, water has been a concern. “Walnuts do need regular irrigation,” said Mariani. “But we have upgraded our system with drip and micro-sprinklers so that we can target small areas with very little waste. We can get by irrigating once every two weeks.

“Growing nuts is much easier than growing a highly perishable crop such as fruit or vegetables. We have the advantage of being able to store nuts and we don’t have as many issues with shipping and food safety. We do try not to store them any longer than necessary so we are pretty busy, running the processing facility 18 hours a day from harvest through December. The rest of the year we spend time tending to the trees.”

Mariani and his wife have three children under 10 years of age. Will the trio become the fifth generation of Mariani farmers?

“They are still pretty little,” he said. “But it is a wonderful life and I do enjoy living in a small community. Only time will tell, but that’s my hope.”

FACTS ABOUT WALNUTS

According to the California Walnut Board, California growers supply three-fourths of the world’s walnuts. The crop has nearly doubled in the past 10 years to nearly 500,000 tons. Here are a few interesting facts about walnuts:

▪ When buying walnuts in the shell, about one pound of nuts equals 8 ounces or 1 1⁄2 cups of shelled nuts.

▪ Toasting brings out the flavor of the nuts. The easiest method for toasting is to toss them into dry skillet over medium heat and stir them until they turn a golden brown. Once toasted they should be frozen or used within a few days.

▪ Walnuts will stay fresh for about a year in the shell if stored in a cool, dry place. Shelled nuts should be refrigerated and used within a month. For longer storage keep them in airtight containers in the freezer.

▪ Many varieties of walnuts are grown in California. The most popular are Chandler, Hartley, Howard, Tulare, Serr and Vina. Most consumers refer to them generically as English walnuts.

Source: The California Walnut Board

Pecan pumpkin squares

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cook time: 35 minutes

Serves 12

These bar cookies are crunchy and gooey at the same time. What a perfect combo for fall treats. Note: Make sure the filling mixture is ready to use as soon as the crust comes out of the oven. If the crust cools before the filling is poured over the top, the filling might not set as firm as you’d like.

INGREDIENTS

Crust and topping:

1 1⁄2 cups quick cooking oats (not instant)

1 1⁄4 cups flour

3⁄4 cup brown sugar, firmly packed

1/3 cup finely chopped pecans

1⁄2 teaspoon salt

1⁄2 teaspoon baking soda

3⁄4 cup butter, room temperature

Filling:

2 cups pumpkin (16-ounce can), not pie filling

2/3 cup whole milk

1/3 cup brown sugar, packed

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

1⁄2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice

INSTRUCTIONS

To make the crust and topping combine the oats, flour, 3⁄4 cup brown sugar, pecans, 1⁄2 teaspoon salt, 1⁄2 teaspoon soda and butter. Use your hands to squeeze the mixture together until crumbly. Reserve 1 1⁄2 cups of the mixture to use for topping. Press the remainder of the mixture into the bottom of a 13x9x2-inch baking pan. Bake at 375 degrees for 10 minutes or until lightly browned.

While crust bakes, prepare the filling. Combine the pumpkin, milk, 1/3 cup brown sugar, egg, vanilla, 1⁄2 teaspoon salt and cinnamon. When the baked crust is removed from the oven, immediately pour the filling mixture over the hot crust. Crumble the reserved topping over the filling. Return the pan to the oven and bake at 375 degrees for an additional 25 minutes or until the topping is browned and filling is set. Cool and cut into bars.

Spiced walnuts

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 35 minutes

Makes 4 cups

This is a delicious nibble that’s just perfect for a holiday party. While the recipe calls for walnuts, pecans would work just fine. Make them a week or two before the party and store them in an airtight container or sealed plastic bags. The recipe is based on one from Fine Cooking magazine.

INGREDIENTS

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/3 cup pure maple syrup

2 teaspoons of grated fresh ginger

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon chili powder

1 tablespoon water

1 pound (4 cups) shelled walnuts

INSTRUCTIONS

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Combine the butter, syrup, gingers, salt, chili powder and water in a small saucepan. Slowly simmer the mixture over low heat for 2 to 3 minutes.

Place the nuts in a bowl. Pour the glaze over them and toss to evenly coat. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil. Spread the nuts in a single layer over the foil. Bake for 30 minutes, stirring several times to toss the nuts in the glaze. When the nuts look dry, they are done. Slide the foil onto a rack and let the nuts cool before touching them with your fingers.

Meringue party nuts

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes

Makes: 5 cups

Makes this recipe several weeks in advance and store the nuts in an airtight container. This makes a nice accompaniment for a meat platter for a holiday party.

INGREDIENTS

5 cups unsalted nuts, such as pecans, almonds and walnuts

1⁄2 cup butter

3 egg whites

1⁄4 teaspoon salt

1⁄2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

INSTRUCTIONS

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Spread nuts on a jelly roll pan and toast in the oven for about 12 minutes. Remove nuts from oven and place in a large bowl. Place butter on jelly roll pan and return to oven until butter melts. In the medium bowl of an electric mixer, beat egg whites and salt on high speed until they form soft peaks. Reduce mixer speed and gradually add sugar and cinnamon, one tablespoon at a time, beating briefly between additions. Turn mixer to high and continue beating until egg whites form stiff peaks. Beat in vanilla. Add meringue mixture to nuts and toss gently just until nuts are coated. Pour coated nuts over melted butter in the jelly roll pan. Bake 45 minutes. During baking time, remove pan from oven every 10 minutes and use a spatula to turn over and gently toss nut mixture so that it cooks evenly on all sides. Nuts are done when meringue is golden and butter is all absorbed. Cool completely before storing nuts in an airtight container.

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