“The USDA agent randomly selects a bunch of walnuts and scatters them on a grid…” thus began a conversation with our neighbor up here in the Capay Valley about why his walnuts are lying on the ground instead of being harvested. I’m not saying the USDA is at fault! It’s just the way the system works. If you want to sell your walnuts through a broker, the walnuts must pass a grading test. The walnuts are sorted on the tray according to size, color, disease and if sold as cracked walnuts, the number of halves v chunks. If too many walnuts fall through the grid, they are inferior for size…making it useless to proceed to the other steps. Brokers don’t pay enough for small walnuts to make it profitable for the grower. When electricity costs are too high to pay for irrigation, as was the case with our neighbor, the walnuts are small…and left to the squirrels.
“I want to shoot those squirrels!” our neighbor’s wife rolled her eyes. “They’re everywhere.”
My own walnuts are small, but I harvest them, crack them myself and sell them directly to consumers or use them in breakfast recipes at my B&B, Cache Creek Inn. They are fresh, plump and colorful, a mouthful of petite walnuts.
The first year I lived in the valley, I stopped by the roadside to check out hundreds of pounds of walnuts plowed into a virtual road under a grove of trees. It looked like the growers decided to use walnuts for paving under the trees. These weren’t waiting for harvest; trucks had driven on top of them. Could I be imagining things? I cracked some of the nuts: wonderful meat inside! So I began gathering some. Shortly, two men drove up in a truck to stop me from doing that.
“I’m afraid we can’t let you do that,” one said.
“They’re no good anyhow,” the other commented. “Most of the shells are empty and the other nuts are too small to be of any use.”
“They could be of use to me…or the food bank,” I offered.
No gleaning allowed; that was the rule. These walnuts were going to rot.