Hull of a Good Story

Farmer Charlie Chegwyn, left, talks with a farm visitor, Kamal Kotaich and Marie Vicksta of the Soil & Water Conservation District on a recent tour of historic Chegwyn Farms.  Photo by Marcus Larson

By Nicole Montesano 

Once touted, by enthusiasts at least, as the future of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, walnuts enjoyed an abundant season for some decades in the first half of the 20th century. The memories still linger, in old trees and a few remaining references to Walnut City — testament to their importance in McMinnville and surroundings — and in the memories of local farmers like Charlie Chegwyn.

Most of the old orchards are gone now, victims of a series of problems — diseased grafts, bad weather and competition from California.

But there are still walnut orchards standing here and there, and McMinnville resident Kamal Kotaich maintains that the Willamette Valley remains prime walnut country. 

“I would like everyone to know that we are still Walnut City,” he said.

He is working to prove it with the restoration of a nearly 50-year-old orchard rented from Chegwyn Farms in McMinnville.

Raised in Lebanon, Kotaich learned how to care for walnuts from his father, and love for the trees runs in his blood. Today, he and his own son, Adam, have embarked on a restoration program, combining Kotaich’s love of walnuts and his son’s passion for conservation. They sell some of the nuts locally and export others.

Some of the trees in the Chegwyn orchard are yellowed, with sparse leaves. But others sport rich canopies of deep green and heavy crops of chartreuse walnut hulls, proof of the hard work that father and son have poured into them over the past three years.

The others, Kamal Kotaich says, just need a bit more time and care.

“Although they are old trees, they still have at least 10 or 15 years” of production left, he said on a walk through the orchard surrounding the Chegwyn homestead, where siblings Charlie and Agnes Chegwyn still live after a lifetime of farming, although they have signed the land over to the care of the Soil and Water Conservation District.

The trees were badly stressed by earlier freezes and years of neglect. But Kotaich gestured to one so heavily laden with nuts that several boughs rest on the ground.

“This is what a healthy tree looks like,” he said. “They all can look like this.”

Initially, he said, all of the trees were in the same compromised condition, but a careful program of pruning and fertilization has made a world of difference. Each year, the pair takes samples of the leaves and sends them to a laboratory for testing, to track which nutrients the trees lack.

“They have a future,” he said. “Everybody doubted I could bring them back.”

Even Chegwyn is among the doubters, when he looks at some of the still-stressed trees. They should come out, he said, and be replaced with young, healthy trees.

“I am going to bring them back, Charlie,” Kotaich insisted, with quiet confidence.

In the early 1900s, walnuts were being promoted as the next big crop for Oregon, and Yamhill County farmers responded with extensive plantings. County Extension Agent Jeff Olsen, who specializes in commercial tree fruits and nuts, said that in 1940, when walnut production hit its peak, records show there were 117,684 producing walnut trees in the county. They are not estimated by acre, he said, because the large trees were so widely spaced. By 1954, the number had dropped to 100,000, he said.

“There were some big events that sort of tipped the balance not in our favor. I would say the backdrop would be the increasing market share of California walnuts,” Olsen said. “I think it reached its peak around 1940.” Production began to decline over the next 20 years and cut itself in half over the following 20. From 1978 to the present, production reduced even more dramatically.

Losses to weather and disease took their toll, he said. Blackline disease, a slow-growing virus acquired from the native black walnut rootstock onto which the trees were grafted, took out mature trees, causing expensive losses.

In 1962, the Columbus Day storm blew down entire orchards. In 1972, a hard freeze killed still more.

Charlie Chegwyn remembers those days. 

“The ’55 freeze, oh gosh, that was a bad one,” he recalled. “There was a heavy frost. The trees were heavily fertilized, so the sap was heavy, and [the freeze] just killed them dead. The ones along the road not being taken care of … survived a little better.”

Before his day, he said, farmers already had seen hard losses, from a spell of icy weather in 1919. 

Chegwyn planted his own walnut orchard in the mid-1960s, primarily as a way to keep work available for his hazelnut harvesters during bad weather.

“We’d harvest and sort [the filberts] out, but sometimes the rain would shut us down,” he said. “I would lose my workers; they would go work for people who had walnuts. I thought I’d better plant some walnuts. Then I changed the way I did my harvesting, so I didn’t have to hire anyone; and then the walnut orchard kind of went to the dogs.”

The 10 acres near the old homestead languished, while another orchard was rented out to a local farmer. When Chegwyn signed over his land to the Soil and Water Conservation District in 2008, under a conservation easement, the district decided to remove the walnuts and replace them with native trees, he said.

But then one day, Kotaich’s wife persuaded him to take a walk, something he rarely made time for. They cut through the Chegwyn’s picturesque old homestead, and incidentally, through the old walnut orchard, heavy with ripening nuts.

“I said, ‘These are walnuts!’” Kotaich recalled. “She said, ‘Yes.’ I asked, ‘Why aren’t they picking them?’ She told me about how Charlie was retiring and had donated the land to Soil & Water, as a kind of public property.”

Continuing their walk, they ran across Chegwyn, in his front yard, and Kotaich said, he couldn’t resist asking whether he might pick up some walnuts. 

“Help yourself,” was the answer.

“My son and I came back and picked about 300 pounds,” he said. “And I was hooked on the taste. It was fantastic. I came back and asked, Can I pick some more? He said, ‘Help yourself.’ So we picked about 800 pounds. I thought about it, and then I sat down and wrote a proposal.”

He offered to take over maintenance of the orchard in exchange for half the crop. 

At the time, Kotaich already was in the walnut export business, buying from California orchards, and exporting them to customers overseas, many of them in Lebanon.

“I didn’t hear back for about six months, and then I got a letter from Agnes saying Charlie agrees,” he said. “So I sat down with Soil & Water, and we worked out this test.”

The deal was that Kotaich and his son would start with the 10 acres on the homestead, he said, and if those trees were successfully made productive again, then Soil & Water, and the Chegwyns would lease him an additional orchard, on an adjacent parcel, once its existing lease expired.

“In January, we will take that over,” Kotaich said.

So far, he and his son have been doing much of the work by hand, hiring a small number of people to help with harvesting. But now that the acreage is expanding, Kotaich said, he’s planning to purchase machinery. 

He’s also been learning from his customers about the best uses of the different varieties. The Chegwyn trees are primarily Franquettes, a variety that Kotaich said is prized for fresh use.

“They are the sweetest variety for eating,” he explained. 

But in Lebanon, where many of his walnuts end up, Chandlers are prized for baking into the traditional dessert baklava.

“When you make baklava out of Franquettes, it comes out strong,” Kotaich explained. “My customers say ‘we like it, but we cannot eat two or three pieces. We can only eat one piece. If you make it from Chandlers, you cannot stop eating it.’ But in mixed nuts, Franquettes are superior.”

With all that in mind, he plans to try some additional varieties, for their various uses.

“My goal is to expand all this with some new varieties, mainly Chandler,” he said.

“What I would like everybody to know is that there is still a future in walnuts, and this is one of the best areas to grow walnuts,” he said.

Jeff Olsen isn’t sure he agrees — California has proven it can out-produce Oregon, he said, and much of the old infrastructure of drying facilities is gone. But none of that is stopping Kotaich, who sees plenty of potential in overseas markets.

“I am a walnut guy,” he said. “I like filberts and almonds … but walnuts are my passion.” 

Nicole Montesano is a reporter for the News-Register.

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