Food safety concerns key for valley walnut growers
Food safety, regulations and the impact of the world economy are some of the largest issues facing California walnut growers, according to representatives from the California Walnut Board.
The Sutter/Yuba/Colusa Walnut Day attracted more than 200 people to talk about new walnut varieties, blight management, pests and diseases, regulations and the state of the walnut industry. The annual meeting is organized and ran by the University of California Cooperative Extension.
Food safety has been an ongoing issue for years and the entire industry is working toward improvements, which also means more regulations, said Jennifer Getz, domestic marketing director for the California Walnut Board. Concerns about E. coli and salmonella are ever-present.
"We need to be able to track it from the farm all the way to the fork," she said.
The question seems to revolve around where the pathogen problem begin and if walnuts are susceptible, she said. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is stepping up inspections and research and safety measures are ongoing.
The challenge for farmers is the financial cost, said Ashley McKenzie, whose family, DeValentine Farms, grows 1,000 acres of walnuts in Yuba and Sutter counties. But ensuring safety is a necessary expense.
"We want our crop to be perceived as healthy to consumers and we want to grow a safe crop, too," she said.
Increasing regulations in all areas on all farmers is another top challenge facing growers, said Steven DeValentine. Requirements by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, OSHA and food safety all push the expense on farmers, while food prices have not really risen that much in the last 20 to 30 years.
He likes to attend the annual Walnut Day to stay on top of what is happening in his industry and said he hopes budget cuts do not further impact research by the University of California.
"Without that we would not be able to maintain this competitive edge globally," DeValentine said.
The board has been actively marketing California walnuts around the world, and sales seem to be increasing along with positive perceptions to walnuts, said Michelle McNeil, senior international marketing director for the California Walnut Board. The nut's omega 3, heart-healthy and antioxidant properties are becoming more well-known all the time.
"In just one year, the percentage of (people who think) walnuts are healthy went from 67 percent to 87 percent," McNeil said.
California walnuts are being advertised with squirrel ads in Spain, a harvest festival in Japan and on home shopping networks in Korea.
McNeil also noted that California inventory numbers are continuing to grow while bearing acreage remains the same, which means farmers are seeing higher yields per acre.
The 2008-09 year saw a record crop, with another large harvest in 2009-10, Getz said. The low and stable U.S. dollar is also good for the walnut industry.
Contact Appeal-Democrat reporter Ashley Gebb at 749-4724 or firstname.lastname@example.org.