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The Nut House : Production of Walnuts Has Shriveled, but Christmas Season Adds a Kernel of Cheer

December 03, 1987|MEG SULLIVAN | Times Staff Writer

Walnut Avenue in Somis has been planted in lemon trees. The former Diamond Walnuts packing house in Camarillo is home to a manufacturer of plastic pipes. And Limoneira walnut posters are cherished by collectors.

Gone are the days when Ventura County led the United States in walnut production, when the roughly furrowed trees bearing the buttery nut were even more plentiful than the trees heavy with today's leading commodity--lemons.

Last year, perhaps a dozen Ventura County growers garnered total receipts of $85,000 from walnut sales, the third-lowest total of California's 40 walnut counties.

But living on are vestiges of a headier era a half century ago, when Ventura County supplied the walnuts for countless turkey dressings and fruitcakes and other holiday treats. Along California 118 near Somis, a big, red barn of a building houses the dwindling empire of a family whose name has become synonymous with Ventura walnuts.

"OOOOh-Nuts!" reads a sign hanging from the 28-year-old Ventura Walnut Shelling Company, otherwise known as the Somis Nut House. Here at the packing house, where there is also a gift shop and mail-order house, the Resnik family is going into its third generation in the shell game.

"We're not as big as we used to be," concedes Jeremy Resnik, 22, the third male in the Resnik line to trade in nut meats. "But we're still hanging in there."

'Sort of Entrenched'

"We're sort of entrenched in the area," adds his father, Stephen, 50, who took over the business when his father died in 1971.

Morris Resnik, a former newspaperman, branched into nuts in 1954. In-laws invited him and his wife, Annette, to join their walnut-shelling business in Canoga Park. Six years later, he sensed that the walnut seat had shifted and opened his own nut house in Somis with his son, Stephen, then 21 and a recent graduate of Stanford.

The eldest Resnick could not have known it, but at every point he was a step behind. The state Agricultural Statistics Service in Sacramento reports that Los Angeles and Ventura counties had run neck-and-neck in walnut production during the early 1940s, but by the time Resnick joined the Canoga Park business in 1954, the walnut capital had moved.

By 1960, when the Resniks hung out their shingle on Los Angeles Avenue, Ventura County had been eclipsed by San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties, according to U.S. Census Bureau agriculture figures. Stanislaus is the U.S. leader today, accounting for $32 million of the nation's $200-million walnut crop.

Higher-yielding varieties of walnut trees that bore more attractive nuts at an earlier age were being developed, and farmers found it less expensive to start new orchards from scratch in the San Joaquin Valley than rip out and replant old acreage in Ventura County, said Jerry Barton, president of Diamond Walnuts.

The growers' cooperative, which processes 60% of the state's 260,000-ton annual walnut harvest, began consolidating its operations in Stockton in the mid-1950s. Its three Ventura County packing houses shut down. By that time, Limoneira, the Santa Paula farming giant, had also left the walnut business.

Property values in Ventura County had skyrocketed, and it no longer made sense to devote a plot of land to the space-consuming trees--their trunks can be three feet in diameter--which produce only a single crop annually.

"The price of land became so high that walnuts became less of a profitable crop relative to other options that farmers had," Barton said. "The obvious crop was houses, and in Southern California, that's a profitable crop."

Walnut orchards not subdivided for housing were planted in citrus trees, which can yield three to four crops a year. Now farmers are even replacing citrus orchards with vegetable plantings that yield as many as five crops annually, said Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner Earl McPhail.

Dwindling Number

Meanwhile, the number of walnut growers continues to dwindle.

Last year, the Newhall Land & Farm Co., whose holdings straddle Los Angeles and Ventura counties, yanked its last walnut planting, a 126-acre grove near Piru. The reduction made a substantial gouge in the 890 acres of walnuts then in production countywide.

Only nine walnut growers remain, according to longtime nut rancher Carl Hofmeister, who tends 270 acres of walnuts in the Upper Ojai Valley. Hofmeister's trees, which belong mainly to the children of former orchardists, are so old that their roots have dipped deep into the water table beneath soil too dry for other crops.

"Dry farming" techniques--or cultivation without the benefit of added water--make this land agriculturally viable, but they also take a toll in nut production.

Local walnut farmers gross $955 an acre annually, which is substantially less per acre than their Northern California counterparts, who irrigate.

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