Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Learning to drive a tractor & other farm vehicles

LOOK OUT! There's a tree in my way!!. We lost 2 trees learning how to navigate a tractor in the orchard. Everytime I get on the tractor I keep hearing a little jingle in my head from the old TV show "Green Acres". When we rescued a dog from the animal shelter I was tempted to name him Arnold.

Actually, the first time I got on the tractor was to steer it out of the mud while Rick towed it with another tractor. Just one of those little things you learn the hard way. But since then, I have learned how to operate the tractor. I can now say that I can pick up yard waste, drive it to the burn pile and dump it. Rick is trying to get me to use the sweeper and harvester... but I've held my ground!! There are some things this lady won't do. (sigh) I'll probably learn how to do both this harvest time.

I learned how to drive an that's fun. I did get some "air" time.. but that was quite by accident, but quite exhilarating. I'll probably never try that stunt again!

I had to tow the longest thing ever for over 10 miles on a fairly busy roadway. I was towing a conveyor from the hullers to our house. Sooo, if you ever shake your fist at a slow moving truck towing a conveyor, it's probably me.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

It's harvest time for the almonds and olives

There are literally more than a hundred different varieties of almonds. We have 3 varieties of almonds: nonpareil, carmel and peerless. The trees bloom in February and are just beautiful. One day, Rick and I were walking in the field admiring the beauty of the trees in full bloom when I held on to a limb and shook it while yelling at Rick "Honey, look it's snowing"! I thought it was a stunning sight, Rick gasped, dazed and said "STOP"! It was then that he told me the blooms were actually almonds. Ooops.

We use various sprays to keep the orchard healthy. The ground needs fertilizer and the trees need stuff to keep the blooms on before it rains, stuff to keep the blooms on after it rains and more stuff to keep the bugs off. The sprays have a technical name, but stuff works for me.

With the help of our neighbor Sam, we found a beekeeper to pollinate the trees. Once the boxes are set and the bees start doing their thing, you can actually hear the buzzing throughout the field. Bees can travel up to a 2 mile radius pollinating trees. As you walk towards my backdoor, there is a Valencia orange tree and hundreds of bees were all into that tree. It was scary for me the first time I heard them buzzing and swarming around, I was afraid of getting stung. But they pretty much leave you alone while they work.

When and if the frost comes, you pray for the best. The temperature dipped below 32 degrees a few times. Those are the days you pray a lot! Some farmers say to turn on the watering system to stave off the frost. Lucky for us, the frost didn't hurt the olive or almond trees. Unfortunately, the orange trees got hit pretty bad.

Rick and I spent a few months getting the field prepared for harvesting by pulling weeds, mowing the grass in between the rows, filling up rabbit holes, squirrel holes and any other hole we see. The work was hard and tedious but satisfying once it was done. Our two daughters their boyfriends and my sweet granddaughter came up a few times to help us get the field in order. Rick and his two brothers came up to help too. It's great having a family that pitches in whenever help is needed.

The actual harvesting begins in August. Prior to our first experience harvesting, we kept hearing stories from people about the "good old" days when they had to use a huge padded stick to whack the trees to get the nuts to drop. Thank goodness for modernization! We hired someone to come out and shake the trees with a specialized piece of equipment.

Since we don't sell our almonds as a mixed variety, we have them shaken at different times. Once the almonds are on the ground they need to be gathered. I use a rake to get the nuts away from the tree and onto the grassy area between the rows of trees then Rick comes by with a sweeper and gathers all the nuts into a neat row. We let the almonds sit for a few days to them dry out. Once they dry up, he uses a harvester to put the almonds into huge bins. Once that is done, then we load them onto a conveyer belt that loads them onto a dump truck. Then off we go to the hullers.

We get to do that 3 times...once for each variety.

Out of hundreds varieties of olives, our farm yields 2 kinds of olives: Manzanillo and Sevillano. Both make excellent table olives. The first year, we just sold them straight up. Sounds sorta silly, but once the fruits of our labors were gone, it felt as if we were missing something. We wanted to do more with the olives so after a lot of researching and asking a lot of questions, we decided to blend our olives to make an oil with the following harvest.

And that's what we did our second harvest.

It doesn't take much to care for the olive trees; a lot of water, sunny days, some prunning and spraying for the dreaded fruit fly and the trees pretty much take care of themselves. However, harvesting olives is extremely labor intensive. We have a work crew come and do that. It takes them a few days to pluck the olives from the trees and load them into huge bins that we take to the facility that will do the cold pressing and bottling. Timing is everything. The olives can't stay in the bins for more than a day or they begin to shrivel up and go to waste. We can produce about 4 tons of olives per acre.

I've heard that other farmers are increasing their production and decreasing the labor costs with a new way planting. The trees are planted very close together and they don't get much taller than 5 feet. When it's time to harvest, they use equipment that is similar to that used to harvest grapes.

Not all our almonds are sold to the hullers. We keep a lot of them and have them flavored to sell in the farmer's markets along with our olive oil. Plus they make excellent gifts for family, friends and donations for various fundraising events for local committees in Orland. Another by product that we have is raw honey. Our beekeeper was kind enough to give us a couple of gallons of honey. Yummy!

After our first harvest, Rick and I made a decision to remove an older almond orchard. We figured that we spent more money trying to harvest the nuts then we took in. But I'll go into that later.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The first time we flood irrigated

My first month in Orland was very hot. If I remember correctly, we had 3 digit temperatures for 23 straight days! I think it was a record breaking heatwave. I don't recall what outside looked like. I stayed indoors with the AC cranked high.

After our first week, my husband had to go back to San Jose to work and I was left to man the farm! Wouldn't you know it, the day after he leaves the drain to the bathtub stops working. Not only does it stop draining...stuff was coming back into the tub! So there I am, standing in muddy water and my hair full of shampoo. I wanted to cry. But I can' don't cry.

I called in the plumber. I heard a lot of banging and grunting, he walked up and down the stairs to the basement, walked around the house looking for something called a clean out. In the meantime, I'm on the phone with the house warranty people trying to figure out who is financially responsible for the repairs.

The plumber left without fixing the problem because I don't have a clean out. The warranty people said I was responsible for the repairs because I don't have a clean out. I decided it was a good time for a cry. After two days without a shower, I went outside, hooked the hose onto a tree trunk and showered. I didn't care who came up the drive way.
The shower felt that good. I called another plumber the next day he didn't care if I had a clean out or not..he fixed it the problem, handed me a bill with a little chuckle and said see you soon! Kinda scary when a plumber says see you soon. Well, I did see him again, but that's another story.

Sam is our closest neighbor and has an almond orchard too. If it wasn't for him, our trees would have died before the end of our first year farming. Sam knows our orchard as well as he knows his own. He explained to us how flood irrigation works and how to flood irrigate. For those of you that don't know, when water is released to a certain district the first farmer on the list gets his share of the water.

When he is done, he calls the next farmer on the list and so on. Your water can come to you at any given time. On Friday evening about 6:00 p.m. we got the call. It was our turn to water. We figured we be done by 1:00 a.m. Rick released the water down the furrows.

We watered the almond trees and turned our attention to the olive trees. There are 2 things I can tell you right now. Don't wear tennis shoes while flood irrigating and don't try to clean out the irrigation ditches while water is coming.

It is now 2:30 a.m., some of the olive trees are getting water but we mostly have a huge pond. I'm driving the ATV holding a flashlight while Rick is trying to clear a way for the water to flow. The temperature is about 100 degrees and the humidity from the water adds to the heat. I'm trying to hold the light steady but the bugs are swarming around me and the light making my job difficult.

We finally finished irrigating Saturday night around 10:00 p.m. Rick and I looked at each other in relief, sat on the ATV and watched the most beautiful full moon ever.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

How did Walsh Family Orchards come to be?

Walsh Family Orchards

Once upon a time.... long, long ago, there lived a princess.. oops, wrong story.

My story begins about 15 years ago. My wonderful husband of 30+ years started dreaming about owning a farm. It was a dream of his to live off mother earth and to retire with a small income from the fruits of his labor. And of course being a dutiful wife, I always replied "You've got to be joking!, what about the kids, my Mom, friends yadda, yadda yadda?". Off and on he'd search the newspapers and internet for a farm. For years, I let him have his pipe dream. That far away look in his eyes was so endearing. Secretly, I never thought it would come true. Then it happened, he found a farm! A few months later, I'm living in a farm house surrounded by 34 acres of almond and olive trees in Northern California. The closest town is Orland, and I think the population is less than 5,000 .

Neither my husband or I had any experience in farming. All that I knew from farming came from books or watching TV. I had visions of me languishing on the patio quenching my thirst with mint julips. Rick's brother Mike and his wife Kathy have an almond orchard in Manteca which is a 3 hour drive from us. I recall Mike sharing his farming experiences with Rick during family gatherings.

Almost 2 years ago to the date, I left the city life for country living. Many of my city friends have told me that I am living a life they dreamed about. Going back to basics and living a simple life style. Lemme tell you, farming olives and almonds is not a simple lifestyle and my idea of going back to basics has changed since the move. In San Jose, my idea of basics was getting my killer nails polished once a week. Now days, I keep my nails clipped short and my hair is always in a ponytail.

We learned very quickly that the income from the farm was barely sufficient to cover the cost of operating the farm.

We didn't have enough to hire someone to help, so, I traded in my high heels for a pair of GoreTex working boots, my INC pantsuits for OshGosh B'Gosh overalls. I gave up the dream of sipping mint julips on the patio and I became a field hand and started learning the business of farming olives and almonds