Going Nuts Over Sustainability

FARMS Leadership | Sacramento Valley | March 22, 2022

Location of Field Day:
Sierra Orchards – Winters, CA
Mariani Nut Company – Winters, CA

Field Day Host and Mentors:
Sierra Orchards – Craig McNamara
Mariani Nut Company – Gus Mariani 

Theme:
Sustainability in Nut Growing and Processing

River City and Esparto High Schools joined forces for March’s Sacramento Valley FARMS field day centered around walnuts and sustainability. Our partners graciously brought us through the process beginning to end: from walnut tree grafting and growing in the orchards, to harvesting and processing, all the way to packaging and distributing.

Our day began within gorgeous Sierra Orchards, a small scale walnut orchard in Winters. Craig McNamara greeted us with his wonderful warmth and zeal–while he’s long been deeply tied to FARMS Leadership field days (he and his wife Julie started the FARMS Leadership Program in 1993!), Covid has kept us from visiting Sierra Orchards for 2 long years. How wonderful to be back in person! After checking in and learning a bit more about each other during our Opening Circle, we moved onto the day’s leadership activity during which two teams of students needed to rely on strategizing, communication, teamwork, and listening skills to race to retrieve an object before the other team. We have some competitive students, to say the least.

From there, it was time to dive into the world of walnut growing. Craig led us on a tour of the orchard during which we learned all about walnut varietals, grafting walnut trees, harvesting walnuts, and the efforts that go into growing organic walnuts. Sustainable practices were everywhere we looked: beautiful blooming cover crop, long piles of compost steeped with walnut hulls, massive solar panels, integrated pest management efforts, wood cut from no longer producing walnut trees waiting to be sent to a wood sculpturist, and flocks of sheep on their way to serve as nature’s lawn mowers.

Alas, we visited the chickens! Sierra Orchards has 3 different coops of about 800 chickens that, of course, produce eggs for sale, but also help to naturally fertilize the orchard through their own waste.  Students cozied up with one coop, together collecting and washing almost 100 eggs. After we left our chicken friends, students better acquainted themselves with the surrounding trees. Through two separate outdoor education activities, students utilized their sensory awareness and communication skills to better understand the important roles that trees play as individual ecosystems for the surrounding biodiversity.

After lunch and a farewell to Craig, we ventured to Mariani nut company, a family-run and much larger scale grower and processor of walnuts and almonds. Greeted by Gus Mariani and his cousin Kyle, they led us onto the walnut processing floor. Suited up in PPE, students traversed the many complicated and fascinating levels of Mariani’s walnut processing technology: sorters, conveyor belts, drum feeders, rotating crushers, infrared technology (the list goes on!), and plenty of quality control personnel along the way to ensure nut processing accuracy and staff safety. After we observed the technology used to bag, package and label to be distributed walnuts, Kyle and Gus sent us on our way with a box of Mariani walnuts to sample ourselves. Thanks to our partners for such an engaging and interesting day!

Farm to Fork Olive Oil

FARMS Leadership | Sacramento Valley | October 26, 2021

Location of Field Day:
Cobram Estate – Woodland, CA

Field Day Host and Mentors:
Cobram Estate – Ciriaco Chavez and Mikayla Gnoss

Theme:
Olive Oil & Sustainable Ag

The Sacramento Valley FARMS Leadership crew kicked off our first field day of the season at Cobram Estate, a leading CA producer of olive oil. After students chowed down some healthy breakfast burritos, we hopped back in our vehicles to venture out to two of Cobram’s olive tree orchards. Strolling through the orchards with Cobram’s Ciraco Chavez and Mikayla Gnoss, we learned all about olive varieties, Cobram’s unique style of planting olive trees (quite different from the iconic olive tree orchards you might see across Europe), and Cobram’s efforts at sustainable growing practices (including a state of the art drip irrigation system and equipment that tracks daily moisture levels to determine the exact amount of water needed by trees, no more, no less. Before heading back, students each harvested olives by hand.

From the orchards, we moved into some mill exploration. Ciriaco and Mikayla led us through olive oil processing from beginning to end: 1) trucks dump loads of harvested olives into an underground collector, 2) olives travel upward again on automated belts which transport them through high-tech machinery that separates good from bad olives, 3) olives are crushed and sent through several centrifuges that separate out the oil, 4) oil is stored in massive vats that can hold up to tens of thousands of gallons, and finally 5) oil is bottled and labeled by automated machines. Our last stop on the tour was Modern Olives: an independent olive oil research laboratory housed within Cobram Estate. We discussed ag careers at every stop, from orchard management to engineering and building mill machinery to laboratory research within Modern Olives.

After students sat down for a fantastic olive oil tasting led by Modern Olive’s head researcher, students made their own olive oil-based (using Cobram Estate oil of course!) salad dressings which they enjoyed on salads for lunch. We ended the day with the olives the students harvested that morning: utilizing observation skills, math skills, and scales, students each calculated the average ripeness level of each tree they harvested from. As Cobram approaches their harvest season, our partners were happy to have our students do some of their olive sampling for them!