Energetic, sharp witted and smooth skinned, Alex Suchan seems much younger than his 83 years, much of them spent toiling in the Lake County walnut orchards he's cultivated for more than six decades.
“I eat a lot of walnuts,” he quipped, noting that the nuts are now in vogue. After years being maligned as fat-laden, walnuts now are considered to have many health benefits. They are chock full of Omega 3 fatty acids and antioxidants, which experts say are good for the heart, mind and bones and may help protect against cancer.
The health benefits, uncovered by research supported by the California Walnut Commission, have boosted walnut production and sales throughout California, which grows 99 percent of the nation's walnuts and accounts for 40 percent grown worldwide,said Jack Mariani, a nut grower and spokesman for the California Walnut Commission.
In Lake County, there's been a surge of new walnut plantings after years of decline, said Lake County Agricultural Commissioner Steve Hajik.
“This is very good news,” he said.
“I've never seen anything like it,” said Suchan, who Hajik calls the walnut “guru” of Lake County. He recently was honored by the University of California Extension services for his contribution to the Lake County walnut farming.
Lake County walnut acreage increased from 2,600 in 2009 to 3,100 in 2010, Hajik said.
Statewide, there are 250,000 acres in production, up from 200,000 acres 10 years ago, Mariani said. Walnut production has increased from 400,000 tons, in the shell, three years ago to about 500,000 tons last year.
“We're poised again this year to have another record crop,” Mariani said.
The increase in acreage means farmers are willing to take a chance that the upswing will continue. Walnuts take almost 10 years to become economically productive, he said.
Other than time, walnuts are easier to grow than pears, which are declining in Lake County, or grapes. They have fewer pests so they require less spray and can more easily be grown organically, Hajik said.