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Nuts Rank As Valuable Crop
Nut farmers like Doug Ott and Dale Van Groningen don't seem to do it for the money - they call it fun - but they and growers like them produce the second most valuable agricultural crop in Stanislaus County.

Almonds, in fact, are second only to milk in the top five crops by value according to the county agricultural commissioner's report for 2010, the latest year for which it was available. In San Joaquin County, which includes Escalon, more than 40,000 acres are devoted to the crop with some 450 almond operations. Walnuts, meanwhile, ranked as the third of San Joaquin County's top 10 crops for 2010.

Agriculture is alive and well in the region.

The Blue Diamond emblem on a tin of nuts is known throughout the world. California is the only U.S. state that grows almonds commercially and produces 80 percent of the world's almonds. It exported almonds valued at $1.08 billion in 2003 or about 70 percent of the total California crop.

Besides growing almonds, Ott is a firefighter, away days at a time on shift work, but he and his father farm a comparatively small farm of 32 acres on Wamble Road east of Oakdale. They've been farming there for 22 years and almonds are their only crop.

Farming is hard, physical work, with a lot of long days, he said, but it has its rewards. You work for yourself, Ott noted, set your own hours, make your own decisions. But Mother Nature has a large influence on a farmer's fortunes as well.

"If the sun doesn't shine, the bees don't fly and pollination doesn't happen. If the temperature drops below 32 degrees you can lose your crop to frost. You can work all day and nothing comes for the September harvest."

Then there are always increasing regulations and restrictions. The Otts have to take care they do not pollute the air in burning prunings, for example, or contaminate the ground water with runoff from their orchards that can be laced with pesticides.

"You find yourself spending more time in the office filling out forms than working in the orchards. All those rules and regulations make it harder to do your job," said Ott.

Like most small farmers, the Otts handle the year-round work like weeding and irrigation themselves but hire contractors for the harvest time work of shaking the trees, sweeping up the crop and hauling the nuts off to the hullers who will extract the meat from the shell.

Van Groningen said outright "It's fun" when asked why he grows almonds. His grandfather started the orchards in the 1940s, his father is retired but at 42 the younger Van Groningen and a couple of brothers continue the business. They have more than 1,300 acres scattered between Manteca, Ripon, Escalon and Oakdale.

"I've been a farmer my whole life. With all the machinery we have now, it's not such hard work as it used to be," he said. "You get to be your own boss, watch things grow, enjoy the harvesting and see a return on your investment. It gives you the freedom to do what you want to do."

Unlike the dairy business where cows require milking day and night, nut growing does not bind you to the farm around the clock. Given reliable employees to keep an eye on the operation, a nut farmer can even get away for a vacation.

"I'm looking at the biggest almond crop I've ever had so I'm hoping the price stays up," Van Groningen said. "It's been steady for some time."

The record crop predicted for the county will be good for its whole economy. While larger than the Otts operation, the Van Groningen's orchards are small compared to some growers in the state who farm thousands of acres.

While admitting increasing government regulations are a drawback in farming, Van Groningen threw out a good word for Oakdale Irrigation District.

"They do a good job although we could always do with more water," he said. "I sometimes worry about the state running out of water."

Wallace Barnhill is a walnut farmer who owns 76 acres of walnuts plus 12 of almonds along Highway 120 between Oakdale and Escalon. Now 84, he has lived on the ranch all his life.

"The crop prospects are looking very good," he said, meaning the number and quality of the nuts rather than the selling price, which he can only estimate.

"We do mostly everything ourselves," he said, noting that applies only until September and October when they hire contractors and equipment to bring in the harvest.

Henry Colombo of Valley Home and his father farm 120 acres of walnuts and almonds on Rodden Road, and spread over Farmington, Escalon and Hughson. His great grandfather first bought farmland along Rodden Road in 1908. Colombo began farming with his father in 1978.

Next week, the final installment of the Bountiful Valley series focuses on the area's fruit production. Look for it in the July 25 issue.