Walnut farms take generations to mature

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Wednesday, October 31, 2007
— Like any farmer, Al Goetsch battles pests, market pressure and the weather.

But unlike most farmers, it’ll be 100 years before Goetsch’s most mature crop is ready for harvest.

Goetsch, 75, is a tree farmer who grows mostly black walnuts on his 33-acre woodland in Turtle Township. He has about 2,000 walnut as well as some oak, butternut and other hardwood trees.

Goetsch bought the woodlot in 1970 and planted his first walnuts in 1980. He thinks some of his most mature trees were planted by the former landowner in the 1930s.

About 20 inches around, even those are 100 years away from ideal harvest, said Goetsch, who serves on the Board of Directors of the International Walnut Council.

A perfect walnut tree has a tall, straight trunk with just a few branches high off the ground. To get that perfect trunk, walnuts need just the right amount of competition from other plants, said Goetsch, who took forestry in 4-H as a child in Juneau, Wis.

Goetsch digs a trench in the spring and dumps walnut fruits in it. A walnut fruit is the seed in its green husk that turns brown as it ripens.

Inside the husk, a black walnut seed is similar to the Persian walnuts we buy at the grocery store. But the shells are harder.

When the trees sprout in the trench, Goetsch replants them in rows a few feet apart so they have to fight each other just a little for sunlight.

Goetsch lets grass and weeds grow around the tiny trees. This provides protection and more competition.

An electric fence protects the baby trees from hungry deer.

“Deer won’t let anything grow,” Goetsch said.

As the saplings grow, Goetsch thins the stand, pulling out the poorest trees.

“It’s all about management,” he said. “Mother Nature has no particular plan. If you want high-quality trees, you have to manage the forest to get them.”

Goetsch, a retired mechanical engineer, keeps charts of the quantity and quality of nuts produced by his most mature trees.

“Like any product—like corn or cattle—you want to choose your best trees to propagate,” Goetsch said.

But it’s not as easy as planting a nut from a really good tree and watching it to grow into another great tree. All the trees in the area have pollinated each other, so you never know what you’ll get in a nut.

Instead, producers snip the end of a twig and splice it onto a root. The new sapling will be a very close genetic match to the tree it came from.

When he’s done weighing and measuring walnut fruits and setting some aside for planting, Goetsch soaks the rest in buckets of water. Then he dumps them, water and all, into a motorized cement mixer. The fruits rattle around, and the husks slowly dissolve.

He stores them in wire baskets to dry. Then comes the good part.

“I eat them,” Goetsch said. “Every morning on my cereal.”

Last updated: 10:34 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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