Capitol Alert

You’ll get a deal on walnuts this year. Farmers won’t.

How a Wheatland walnut farmer feels about Trump trade war

Prices for California walnuts dropped sharply in 2018, and now China is raising tariffs in response to the Trump administration’s trade policies. Here's how farmer Donald Norene feels about the situation.
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Prices for California walnuts dropped sharply in 2018, and now China is raising tariffs in response to the Trump administration’s trade policies. Here's how farmer Donald Norene feels about the situation.

The USDA estimated in a recent report that California will produce 690,000 tons of walnuts this year — up 10 percent from last year.

That means you’ll save money at the grocery store. California walnut farmers, however, won’t be as fortunate.

With steep pricing declines and record-high supply, the industry is already in store for some short-term struggles. And as countries like China raise tariffs on U.S. agricultural exports in response to the Trump administration’s escalating trade war, farmers worry more pain is on the horizon.

President Donald Trump has responded to the concerns by directing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide walnut growers $34.6 million in tariff relief — which pales in comparison to the $1.5 billion California walnut producers generate each year.

“It’s a Band-Aid,” said Pat Mecklenburg, a Rio Oso walnut grower. “But if you cut your main artery, it’s not really going to help.”

Still, there’s a sense of optimism within the farming community that the current hurt they’re experiencing could be worth it in the long run. Mecklenburg voted for Trump in 2016 and plans to support him again in his 2020 re-election bid. She views the trade tensions as a necessary evil.

“The prices are probably at the floor right now,” she said. “You won’t make a profit if the prices don’t come up. But if we don’t do something, we’ll never make a profit. We’re gonna have to go through a rough year and see how things settle out.”

Donald Norene lives just a couple minutes away from Mecklenburg. He raises 750 acres of walnuts on his farm in Wheatland — a small rural city with about 4,000 residents. He is passionate about his line of work and spoke at length about the complex walnut production process.

He shares Mecklenburg’s fears but also remains supportive of the president. He said Turkey, India and China are to blame for unfair trading practices.

“We’ve been jerked around on these import duties,” Norene said.

Others say Trump’s tariffs are exacerbating the problem. Dan Sumner, director of the Agricultural Issues Center at UC Davis, called the tariffs “a job loser by every measure I see.”

“It’s hard to see who’s really coming ahead from this,” Sumner added.

Congressman Tom McClintock, an Elk Grove Republican, represents many rural voters in Northern California. When asked about his biggest area of disagreement with the president earlier this month, he pointed to Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on other countries.

“Tariffs have produced consistent results whenever they’re applied: They harm the economy of any country that employs them,” McClintock said.

As California walnut farmers gear up for a tough year ahead, they continue to work tirelessly.

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Norene relies on a shaker to remove the walnuts from his trees. After that, sweepers pull the nuts into rows, rakers tidy things up and pick-up machines carry the walnuts to the main production line.

When all is complete, Norene will hope for good weather and high ratios of meat to shell. If he is fortunate, he’ll bring in a couple million dollars this year.

He and Mecklenburg are the lucky ones. They’ve experienced the highs and the lows of the business in the past, know how to weather the storm and have orchards well-equipped for peak harvesting time. Other walnut farmers will be in deeper trouble.

“Orchards around the country are struggling,” Norene said. “They’re in declining production, and at these kinds of prices, they can’t sustain the operation.”

The walnut harvest in Wheatland starts with the shaking of trees and sweeping the walnuts of the ground.

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