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.
About 54 percent of Lake County's walnuts are being grown organically, he said. But the demand for organic walnuts is not high, possibly because they're in shells that protect them from direct contact with pesticides, Hajik said.
As a result, organic farmers aren't getting much more money for their walnuts. Hajik said the overall price of walnuts is between $1,820 per ton and $2,120 per ton. State figures show that walnut orchard generate about two tons per acre
Growers are pleased with those prices, a considerable improvement from 2008 when the price of walnuts brought just 70 cents per pound — $1,400 a ton.
While production is rising in Lake County, it's a far cry from the heyday of the 1970s. Crop reports are sketchy, but it appears walnut production in Lake County peaked in 1977 when there were 9,460 acres were in production, Hajik said.
That year, Lake County walnuts were valued at $1.4 million. Last year's crop was valued at $2.9 million, he said.
Crop values are higher than in the 1970s in part because newer varieties produce more walnuts per acre and larger nuts, Suchan said. Older varieties produce only about 40 percent edible kernel, compared with about 50 percent from varieties like Chandler, he said.
"The Chandler is a fantastic variety. Very easy to shell. They halves are worth more money," Suchan said.