Thursday, November 7, 2013

Down on the Farm: Willamette Valley Walnut Harvest

Sowing and reaping the soil for food, living hard by the seasons: Several generations back, probably most of our ancestors were agrarian. My great uncle had an orchard in Yakima, Washington, where I remember sampling the sweetest, freshest apples ever. How about you?

Maybe that's why I get excited about helping small farmers harvest, like the lavender, wine grapes, and walnuts I've cut and gathered this year. 
It doesn't hurt that there's usually good food involved in exchange for a day here and there helping out, like my recent weekend in pastoral Willamette Valley between Salem and Silverton, Oregon.

When I get invited to spend a weekend on Mary Lou and Benjamin's family farm to harvest walnuts, I say heck yes! Despite the late October damp chill and the roosters crowing at zero dark thirty each morning, I sleep surprisingly well inside my cozy tent pitched behind the old barn. (Well...the walnuts pelting the barn in little explosions when they dropped from the overhanging tree did scare me a bit at first.)

It didn't start raining until the morning I packed up and left.
Our mission is to harvest walnuts dropped on the ground beneath the trees that Benjamin's father planted over 60 years ago.  This used to be part of a much larger farm dating back a couple generations, as are most of the many farms in this part of the central Willamette Valley. Today the family works 2 of the 40 acres, while the rest are leased to a tenant farmer for seed production.

Come Saturday morning,  Mary Lou has been up early fixing breakfast for the crew of friends here to help harvest. Like I said, we'll eat well this weekend.

After stoking up on biscuits, bacon, and coffee, it's time to head out back and search for walnuts. I follow Benjamin out to the edge of the orchard, where he points out some walnuts on the ground beneath a tree.

"This tree has lots of nuts.  If the outer cover comes off easily, that's good. But if it sticks, don't bother."  I didn't know that walnuts grow sheathed in an outer pouch that looks sort of like a green Italian prune on the tree.

On the ground where we gather the nuts, the outer layer is slimy in this damp misty weather.  I pick them up with my surgical-glove covered hands and pull at the covering.  Nuts that pop out easily go into the bucket and later into big canvas bags in the back of Benjamin's pickup.

This manual labor is quiet and methodical.  It gives me time to just be with the trees, the fallen leaves, the mist, and the land.

Benjamin has been harvesting nuts from these trees since he was a boy.
Across the dirt field another small farm.
Some trees aren't as productive, and the search for nuts in the layer of fallen leaves feels like a challenging and sparse East Egg hunt. Sometimes we're bending over, sometimes raking, and sometimes just down on our knees on the ground, scouring the leaves and uncut grass for walnut gold.

Walnut yoga?

Soon enough it's lunch time, and we relax and enjoy another wonderful meal Mary Lou has prepared.  And of course good wine; this is the Willamette Valley, after all, where wineries surround us. Our crew ranges from retirees like Mary Lou and Marilyn to my nephew Alex who lives nearby in Salem.

After lunch we put in several more hours, and I do battle with a particularly infertile tree, raking and combing through leaves carefully.  With each walnut I find, it feels like I've won a mini-lottery.  This tree doesn't yield much, but the nuts are particularly lovely.

Our primary reward for today's toil (but it was truly enjoyable toil!) is a wonderful dinner at the Silver Grille Cafe in nearby Silverton, where Chef Jeff Nizlek features savory Willamette Valley cuisine.  Three thumbs up to this charming and intimate café, where the meals feature locally sourced meats, wine, mushrooms, and produce.  (Mary Lou and Benjamin's walnuts from a harvest a few weeks ago are in my green salad.)

When I was a kid Silverton was not a foodie destination, but today it's part of the whole marvelous Willamette Valley wine-cuisine scene. (Of course no one had ever heard of a "foodie" when I was growing up, and a food culture hardly existed here in the Northwest.)

Fresh pasta, incredible sauce.

Too early Sunday morning  it's time to rise (not as early as the roosters though) and head north for the 4-hour drive back to Seattle.  I feel a little wistful leaving the valley and this pastoral landscape, knowing soon I'll be back in the city fighting traffic.

Do you have any harvest stories to share?  Would love to hear your comments below.

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When You Go
While my weekend was specific to a private family farm, I say jump at any chance out there to help harvest for a day or two. Small wineries often have an email list sign-up for harvest assistance. The Willamette is a wonderful place for bicycling and exploring farm stands, wineries, and little gems of cafes and such.  Go reconnect with the spirit of your farming ancestors!


Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi Jill,

How lovely to see the farm again. Your pictures are much better than mine. Glad to hear that the harvest went well. Thank you for such a delightful post. Salutations from Versailles.


Anne said...

Your Bowman ancestors lived on a farm in Kansas, too, so you got it from both sides!

Does berry picking for pocket change count as harvesting?

Anonymous said...

Jill, both ben and I really love this post. We are generally too busy to record the event. Neither of us can figure out why our friends volunteer to crawl over the ground for hours but we are deeply grateful. You are a welcome addition to the crew, anytime. Its even possible to join us in summer for other farm fun.

jill said...

Hi Victoria. Glad I gave you a way to see the farm again. The harvest weekend was fun, nice change from city life. Thanks for your comment and salutations all the way from Versailles.

Anne, sure, berry picking counts.

ML - would love to see the summer fun too! I did it because I truly enjoyed the day with the land, the people, and your great food. :)

Anonymous said...

Beautiful, misty images of a lovely weekend! Paul and I have been to the farm to pick walnuts many times - this year a back injury sidelined us here in Seattle. We missed that reconnecting to our hunter-gatherer roots, and of course, the excellent company! Perhaps next year, when the walnuts grace us with their gifts again. Betsy Braun and Paul Diedrich

Anonymous said...

Well, Jill and Victoria, my two favorite bloggers, how about keeping in touch and arranging to meet at the farm during the French family's annual summer visit. August is a very different experience with its own set of pleasures and challenges. Extra hands are welcome hands and I look forward to the very helpful French family hands every year.