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'It's A Pretty Trying Time': Shipping Crisis Hits California's Walnut Industry, Forces Some Local Farmers To Turn To Other Crops

WOODLAND (CBS13) — Bulldozers are taking down acres of trees in a Yolo County orchard that's grown walnuts for years.

California is known worldwide for its walnuts — producing 720,000 tons last year alone. But right now, some growers are giving up on the classic California crop.

Branch by branch, acre by acre, walnut trees that were in place for more than a decade at Bullseye Farms in Woodland are now destroyed.

"We farm a little over 1,000 acres of walnuts and we're removing 500," said Nick Edsall, the orchard manager of Bullseye Farms.

Edsall said the decision wasn't easy. It took seven years just to get the trees big enough to produce a crop.

Some trees that are next in line to be knocked over and dried, and then sent on to the woodchipper, are just starting to form their walnuts — but they won't be standing long enough for them to form.

"Right now, in agriculture in general, it's a pretty trying time because for one, the drought," Edsall said.

But the dry dusty soil surrounding the uprooted trees isn't the most urgent problem.

"In the past, the biggest problem was water," said Bill Carreire of the California Walnut Board. "It's become probably our third or fourth worry at the moment."

Carriere said despite high consumer demand for walnuts worldwide, California can't deliver.

"Our number one problem is the shipping issue, definitely," he said.

Walnuts have a short shelf life compared to many commodities, so it's a race against the clock to get them loaded onto cargo ships and sent to consumers overseas. Two-thirds of California's walnuts are shipped to other countries from Europe to the Middle East.

"A typical route for a ship is to come over from China to Long Beach, L.A., unload all their cargo, iPhone or whatever, and then head up to Oakland," Carriere said.

But right now, many ships are skipping the Port of Oakland altogether and heading back to China with empty containers.

So why is that?

Prices to bring products from China to the U.S. are soaring up to $20,000 per container for a trip that takes about a week. But a trip to take walnuts from California to Europe may only pay a fraction of that and require a month or more of travel.

"If I were a shipping line, I get the economics of it," Carriere said.

And walnuts aren't the only commodity getting left behind. This month, both California's senators joined ag groups across the state in calling for a summit to address the shipping crisis, saying they are "deeply concerned that U.S. agricultural producers are unable to secure containers to export their products."

But growers aren't optimistic about a quick fix.

"The ships that call here are not American ships," Carriere said. "They're from other countries, and so we don't have a lot of teeth in our laws to make them do anything."

In the meantime, Edsall said prices for walnuts have plummeted and Bullseye Farms can't afford to wait.

"If we thought that the market would recover, we'd leave the walnuts in and try to just minimize inputs for a little bit," he said. "We're a big ranch, and we're diversified, and we grow a lot of crops. So we have other options to put in here."

Instead, these orchards will soon be replaced with another California tradition — rows of processing tomatoes — and for now, a far more reliable crop.

The woodchips from all those trees are still being put to good use. Some are being sent to a biofuel plant to make energy while the rest will be spread out as mulch in hopes of returning nutrients to the soil.

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