John Galeazzi of Modesto comes from a line of Italian immigrants who began farming in California in 1894. Thanks to an agricultural conservation easement protecting a 250-acre walnut orchard in Lockeford, that family line can continue indefinitely.
Galeazzi and his son-in-law grow three varieties of walnuts on the orchard he purchased in 2004. The orchard acts as a mile-long natural buffer against development in the area. The city of Lockeford is on one side, and the Mokelumne River runs along the other. The rich river soil has lent itself to a consistent walnut crop, said Galeazzi, but land near the river is often bought up to build riverfront ranchettes.
Development rights have been permanently extinguished. The land will remain in agricultural use forever.
Galeazzi was proud to have his orchard protected from development.
"I've got grandkids, and this land is something I can pass on to my heirs," he said, showing off a cellphone photo of 6-month-old Johnny Galeazzi, the newest member of the family.
The Central Valley Farmland Trust will hold the easement. It obtained the bulk of funding to create the easement from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service's Farm and Ranchland Protection Program. Other contributions came from the state Department of Conservation's California Farmland Conservancy Program and city of Stockton farmland mitigation funds.
"Conserving California's farmland is a prudent investment, helping to ensure food security and economic opportunity," said Department of Conservation Director Mark Nechodom. "The CFCP is designed to protect important farmland in the path of development, and there's a fair amount of ranchette development here. Protecting this property will benefit the agricultural economy and stability of this region, so we are very happy to be a part of this project."
Galeazzi, a farmer for 50 years, has experience growing grapes, alfalfa and other crops, but has narrowed his focus to walnuts because he says they are easier to monitor.
"I can manage walnuts without stress. I can manage my crop more peacefully," he said.
The nuts are growing in popularity as a health food.
"I eat them on my cereal at the start of every day," said Galeazzi. Most of his nuts are exported overseas.
Galeazzi donned a wide-brimmed straw hat to tour his orchard and check on the crop. At this time of year, he's looking for branches weighed down with walnuts.
Broken branches on the ground are a good sign, as long as there aren't too many. Galeazzi says it means there's so many nuts on the branch it couldn't hold up the weight.
Pulling a green orb from a tree near the front of the property, Galeazzi dug a small pocketknife into the unripened walnut and split it open to reveal a thin brown shell and white center. This is a Chandler walnut, the second variety to mature in September of each year. Vinas come first, and Hartley walnuts take another week or so to mature. All three are English walnut varieties.
At harvest, the hulls are splitting naturally. Galeazzi and his two full-time employees gather the windfall nuts before shaking each tree to knock the rest loose. It can take up to four rounds of shaking and gathering to get all the nuts off of trees that grow up to 65 feet tall.
Temperatures can drop up to 12 degrees underneath the thick canopy in the heart of the orchard. The trees store so much moisture it cools the air, even on a hot July morning.
"It's good if you can't see any walnuts with just a glance. It means they're covered in leaves, camouflaged. They're being taken care of by the tree," he said.
The biggest problem for Galeazzi is when neighbors have walnut trees for decoration in a backyard, but don't take care of them. Mites, aphids and huskflies can easily move into his orchard.
"It's hard to be a good steward of the land if your land is adjacent to those who are not," he said.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at email@example.com.