President Gary Howard introduced Henry Gilbert as a Renaissance Man:  anthropologist, paleontologist, professor, author (Homo erectus: Pleistocene Evidence from the Middle Awash, Ethiopia) , and currently, a third-generation walnut farmer at Gilbert Orchards (founded over 100 years ago).  Since he was returning from a family trip to Mexico, Henry joined us from the Houston airport.
After a brief discussion of his academic life including positions that he still holds at UC Berkeley, CSU East Bay, and the Director of the Kesem Kebena Project in Ethiopia, Henry explained how he became a walnut farmer in Wheatland, California (i.e., the death of his father in 2016 and other relatives) on 2000 acres in Wheatland. 
While Henry shared photos of Gilbert Orchards, he provided a great deal of information about the history of walnuts, walnut farming, the current market including labor issues and land prices including:
  • Walnuts come from the foothills of the Himalayas and were spread by Alexander the Great as food for his troops.  Walnuts then spread to the Mediterranean and into Europe.
  • In Indian and Pakistan, walnuts are part of the traditional food culture.
  • Since the orchards have been in the Gilbert family for over 100 years, there are many heirloom walnut trees on the farm.
  • Currently, walnuts bring $.60/lb compared to $2.15/lb in 2015.
  • Walnuts tend to be marketed to people with money and for health benefits especially the heart and brain
  • Chandler walnuts produced 3-4 tons per acre compared to other varietals and generate twice the price; therefore, as trees are replaced, they are replaced with Chandler trees.
  • Harvesting walnuts is a simple process:  shake the trees; pick-up the walnuts; remove the green husks; wash and dry; and ship.
  • In recent years, both China and Chile have entered the market, which has depressed prices, but Henry sees the potential of a year-round, world market,
  • Henry described the process and value of grafting varieties of walnut trees – keeps the trees long while being able to upgrade the varietals.
Since the walnut marker is changing, Henry described some things that he is trying to maximize production from the land, such as growing
  • teff, an Ethiopian grain that is high in iron and gluten-free. According to Henry, teff has “yuppie appeal,” but he is growing teff for other markets as well;
  • greenchop that is grown to feed cattle;
  • peppers and tomatoes to produce salsa for the local farmer markets.  Income from these sales is used to promote Mexican folkloric dance in the community; and,
  • cannabis on a limited basis as the laws and cannabis markets evolved.
After the formal presentation, Henry graciously answered questions on many topics and provided the following information:
  • Walnuts use 2’ of water/acre/per year compared to 3’ for wheat’; however, access to water is an issue as the population grows and the demand for water in Southern California increases.
  • The harvest season is normally September 15-October 15 and is not as sensitive as the grape harvest since walnuts will last on the ground without rain.
  • It takes a walnut tree 5-6 years to get to harvest with major production starting in years 7-9 that can continue for 25-30 years.  Henry provided a detailed explanation of the life cycle of a tree.
  • Labor is a major issue due to the lack of workers and the cost of labor.  Henry foresees a significant increase in the price of food in the next five years.  The cost of labor not only includes wages, but health care (Gilbert Orchards paid Kaiser for its workers) and impact of Workers’ Compensation as well as “shady” labor contractors (Gilbert Orchards stopped using labor contractors).  The bottom line is that there are fewer workers available, and the cost of labor continues to increase. (Watch the video for a detailed explanation. 
  • Henry shared his anthropological and paleontology work including the dangers in Ethiopia and South Africa.
The Club sincerely thanks Henry for a truly engaging educational presentation.  Watch his presentation here.