Thanks to the California Farm Water Coalition for sponsoring this farm tour!

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I am always excited and honored when I am invited to participate in a Farm Tour arranged by the California Farm Water Coalition. I know that I’ll be spending time on beautiful farms and ranches with some of my favorite foodie friends as we meet and learn from the amazing farming families around the state.  This summer’s tour took us to farms and dairies in the Modesto and Turlock areas, where we learned about milk and cheese production, habitat restoration along the Tuolumne River, and basically went nuts for nuts – almonds and walnuts, to be exact!

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Our first stop was at the Almond Board of California in Modesto, which represents 6,800 almond growers – of whom 90% are multi-generational family farms – and 105 almond processors in the state. Their research involves production, environment, nutrition, almond quality, food safety, and Honey Bee health. Findings from their research helps update and create best practices.

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We learned almond trees use about the same amount of water as many other California fruit and nut trees, but they yield not 1 but 4 products: the kernels we eat; hulls for livestock feed; shells for livestock bedding; and the actual tree itself, which is ultimately recycled to create alternative energy and improve soil quality.

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Did you know that almonds are related to both the peach and rose families? The fuzzy hull resembles a peach, and the shell a peach pit – the hull even smells similar!  Whole almonds are the top almond product consumed – you may have guessed that but might be surprised by the second…it’s almond milk!  With the incorporation of almonds into more and more products like yogurts and ice creams, butters, crackers, cereals, soups, sauces and of course, home cooking and baking, they fit easily into many diverse lifestyles.

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Several key nutrients in almonds – vitamin E, magnesium, fiber and calcium – have been identified by the 2015 US Dietary Guidelines as Nutrients of Public Health Concern – many Americans do not get enough of them in their diet.  Almonds are also a great source of riboflavin, phosphorus, protein and niacin.

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The next morning found us standing in the shady walnut orchard of Wood Colony Nut Company.  Owner Paul Wenger, who is also President of the California Farm Bureau Federation, told us how his family has farmed their land since 1910, starting with dairy cows before switching to walnuts.

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The walnut harvest is really something to see.  Mechanical shakers release the nuts from the trees, and “windrows’ are created. A machine sweeps up the nuts, twigs and leaves, depositing the debris back on the ground, where a rototiller works it back into the soil. Night crawlers underground eat lots of the waste and “recycle” it out, creating good fertilizer.  This also opens the ground up, which is good for water storage; it takes a bit longer to irrigate the orchard but the overall effect is still very positive.

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In addition to thousands of pounds of the walnuts you’re accustomed to seeing in stores, Wood Colony grows red walnuts too. Not only are they beautiful – imagine that gorgeous color in your salads and baked goods! – they are delicious.  They have a smooth texture and buttery taste without bitterness.  They are not as common in stores and are a little more expensive, but if you have the opportunity,  I highly recommend them!

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According to the California Walnut Board, walnuts are recognized as the oldest known tree food, dating back to 7000 BC.  Like almonds, walnuts are also nutritious, containing good polyunsaturated fats, plant-based essential omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, protein and fiber.  They are naturally sodium and cholesterol free.

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After walking through the walnut orchard, Paul took us just outside it to see the largest walnut tree in California. The first walnut tree planted in Stanislaus County in 1904, it measures 36 feet around the trunk – so large that we could barely to fit the whole tree into our photos!

What always resonates with me on these tours is the unending commitment that farmers put into growing their crops for the world. Farming isn’t just throwing some seeds into the ground and watering. A myriad of fluctuating factors – weather, soil, water and more – mean that every season is different.  Our farmers unceasingly respond to the challenge with patience, flexibility, expertise and creativity.

I just noticed on my calendar that this Sunday, October 22, is Nut Day – how fortuitous!  How to celebrate with walnuts and almonds?  I’ve got just the ideas:

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My Good Morning Granola is a delicious way to combine walnuts and almonds for a fantastic snack or start to your day.  The recipe can be easily adapted to use your favorite nuts, dried fruits and spices – but walnuts make a great base with chopped almonds as an accent.

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Another favorite recipe that puts both walnuts and almonds to good use is the Barefoot Contessa’s Chipotle and Rosemary Roasted Nuts. Tossed with cashews and pecans in a mixture of maple syrup, brown sugar, orange juice, fresh rosemary and chipotle powder, the nuts are then oven-roasted and cooled; the result is an addictive mix that’s a perfect pairing for cocktails and cheese boards, and a handful on its own makes a healthy sweet and savory snack.  The recipe makes a big enough batch for sharing, which is great, because I have friends who request these every year on Thanksgiving (trust me, you will too!).

Stay tuned for more farm and dairy adventures and recipes from this summer’s tour ~ until then, enjoy, y’all!

We have neglected the truth that a good farmer is a craftsman of the highest order, a kind of artist.” Wendell Berry

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