Old Dog Ranch: The Inner Workings of an Organic Walnut Orchard

Old Dog Ranch: The Inner Workings of an Organic Walnut Orchard

When we first started our business, it all started with our chocolate walnut cookies - it was the first recipe to be tested and perfected for our family and friends before launching Christine's Cookie Co. As we try our best to source and highlight as many local, organic growers and food producers as possible with our cookies, we knew we wanted to find some organic walnuts to feature in our cookies. We're so lucky to have found Old Dog Ranch, a family farm based in San Joaquin County. Their organic walnuts can't be beat, as they add an absolutely delicious, toasted crunch into our walnut cookies.
Mollie and Roger Sitkin are the daughter-father duo that head operations at Old Dog Ranch, and it was lovely to meet them at their beautiful orchard. About a two-hour drive from the Bay Area is this amazing orchard full of walnut trees situated right by a lovely creek, and we even came home with a variety of delicious organic blueberries Roger has been planting. Find out about their organic walnuts, sustainability efforts, and more in the following interview.
Can you give us an intro to Old Dog Ranch?

Roger: I always wanted to be a farmer growing up. When I came back from college, I started with a 40-year-old tractor my grandmother gave as a grad present on some rented land, growing a variety of crops. Farming wasn't very promising as the years went by, so I had a few career changes, but when I came back to California, I started to plant walnut trees. The variety of walnuts (Chandler) were not planted very much at all when I first started - they're large, light in color, and are a nice flavor. They are now the dominant variety that is grown.

Why did you decide to go organic?
Roger: A few years ago Mollie wanted to join in, and she started Old Dog Ranch Family Farm, named after our two old dogs, Mollie and Poppy. We worked on converting the orchard to organic, as we observed that consumers were demanding more organic products. We're a small orchard compared to larger commercial growers, so when we made the conversion to organic, many people thought we would be lowering our yield and quality. However, we saw the opposite - our walnuts have been top quality throughout the years, which we are very proud of with our efforts to be a certified organic farm.
The land this orchard sits on is also very special, with a river going right through. 50 years ago, it was a gravel quarry, and we worked to rehabilitate it as much as possible to become a native habitat. There's so much diverse wildlife but there are continual issues with invasive species that we're trying to help maintain as well. It's all part of our effort to be better stewards of the land we've been given.
How are walnuts conventionally grown vs. organically grown?
Roger: There are a lot of chemicals you can’t use with an organic farm. The most difficult challenge is weed control, as there are virtually no herbicides you can use. If you look at a conventional walnut orchard, you'll usually see a strip of dirt that is weed-free, as it's usually sprayed with herbicides. For us, we have to hand weed and mow around the trees and sprinklers.
With the higher temperatures and droughts in California, mites have also become a problem for walnut orchards. There's nothing effective that you can spray that is certified organic. However, because we've been organic and not spraying toxic insecticides, there are already beneficial insects eating the mites, which was a win for us.
Congrats on the regenerative organic farm certification! Can you tell us more about that?
Mollie: Thank you! We are thrilled to share that we're the first Regenerative Organic Certified walnut farm. To get this certification you have to be certified organic, and we've already been certified with CCOF. The Regenerative Organic Farm Certification adds three different pillars on top of your existing organic practices: social fairness, animal welfare, and soil health. We are able to use the framework to quantify the amount of carbon sequestered in our healthy soils and the biomass of our walnut trees. At the end of the day, we hope to show farmers that commercial agricultural practices can be cleaned up and that it is possible to have a net positive impact.
Roger: To add to that, the situation in California with climate change is very scary - we simply don't have enough water supply. Climate change is going to make it even worse in the future, so we do very careful monitoring of our water here in the orchards such as checking evapotranspiration rates, timing our irrigation, soil moisture tests, and more.
Thanks so much for sharing all that you're doing - the last question is a fun one. What is your favorite way to eat walnuts?

Roger: In a chocolate chip cookie! :)

We hope you all enjoyed this special interview with our friends at Old Dog Ranch. You can find them monthly at the Saturday San Francisco Ferry Building Farmers Market, or use code ChristinesCookies to get 10% off your purchase and free shipping on orders over $50 of Organic Walnuts from www.olddogranch.com. And of course, we'd love for you to try out our chocolate walnut cookies which feature their delicious toasted walnuts. Use this special discount code OLDDOGRANCH to get 10% off your purchase of chocolate walnut cookies for a limited time.
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