Unruh Walnut Farms

Unruh Walnut Farms – Colusa County, California

Daniel and Rachelle Unruh own and operate Unruh Walnut Farms located in Colusa County, California, near the town of Princeton, CA.  Daniel has a passion for farming regeneratively and has made radical changes to his Walnut Orchards after attending his first Soil Health Academy a few years ago.  The Unruh's have about 11,235 Chandler-variety walnut trees located on 193 acres in the northern part of the famous Central Valley of California.

Since first attending an SHA school in 2018, Daniel has been intentional in the practical application of the Six Principles of Soil Health and the Three Rules of Adaptive Stewardship.  He is doing that so he can optimize the capture and benefits of the Four Ecosystem Processes.

Background and History

Daniel grew up on his family’s farm in east-central South Dakota. His family had a farrow-to-feeder hog operation where they raised and sold feeder pigs. “Lots of feeder pigs,” he said. They also backgrounded cattle in their on-farm feedlot and put up a lot of hay, silage and high-moisture corn, in what Daniel describes a “very conventional” farming operation.

Daniel and Rachelle Unruh

Daniel and Rachelle Unruh

In addition to the pigs and the cattle, the family maintained a sheep flock of between 350 and 400 ewes, dryland-farming about 1,100 acres where they grew sunflowers, soybeans, corn, wheat, oats, and alfalfa for their sheep and cattle.

I was never involved in the management side of the farm, other than being part of the grunt labor force,” he said about his role there.  According to Daniel, his parents had the philosophy, “What better way to raise kids and teach them how to work and to make their shoulders broad because they have to use them anyway.”

In 1996 and 1997, the Unruh’s were forced to liquidate their swine herd twice due to pseudorabies outbreaks in the herd. After liquidating the second time, Daniel’s dad decided that enough was enough, so they pivoted to buying and raising dairy calves, primarily bull calves.  At one point, they were bottle-feeding more than 100 calves twice daily.

By the early 2000’s, the Unruh’s could no longer operate the farm in a profitable manner and were starting to experience significant financial issues.  No matter how hard his parents and siblings worked, Daniel said they could no longer avoid insolvency, and in 2002, his parents liquidated the farm.  At that point, Daniel went to work at a local beef cattle feedlot and then left agriculture entirely when he started working as an auto body painter. “I still love auto body work, but my lungs don't,” Daniel said. “All the solvents, the ambient solvents in a body shop, didn't do me any good.”

After his stint painting auto bodies, Daniel installed floor coverings for a relative in southern Missouri. His plan was to learn that trade, then move back to South Dakota and start his own floor-covering business, but life stepped in, and his future direction was completely altered.   His church missions’ program offered him a temporary five-week job in California that involved working with a Central Valley Rice farmer.  Daniel said he gave the offer a lot of thought, then struck out for California in 2006.

A few weeks later, he reached out to his boss in Missouri to see about returning to the floor covering business and that’s when he learned that his boss and wife had decided to do a three-year mission in Malawi.  The five-week job on that rice farm in California ended up being a two-season job.

Daniel found that there was plenty of work in the Central Valley for someone who was willing to work, so he stayed where he ended up doing a lot of custom hay work.  “I pretty much lived, breathed and ate swathers and balers,” he said. “I spent a LOT of time in a swather and baler.” After a while, Daniel said the hay business got tiring so he switched to lawn care for about three years.

The Walnut Orchard

Shortly after Daniel moved out to California in 2006, he met his future wife, Rachelle, at the church he was attending. The two forged a friendship that later became a courtship.  Rachelle is a native of the Central Valley and grew up on her family’s farm there and her father has been a long-time farmer in the Colusa area.  He was primarily a row crop farmer growing edible beans, corn, sunflowers, small grains, and hay, but in 1989, he planted his first walnut orchard using the Hartley variety.

In 2010, Daniel and Rachelle decided to get married, and his future father-in-law purchased the property they now operate in 2009, expecting them to marry sooner than they did. Daniel is paying his father-in-law off over time until he has full ownership of the property.

The couple planted the north 103 acres of the property in walnut trees in 2010, not realizing that they had root lesion nematodes lurking in the soil.  In 2012, they discovered the issue and began looking at how best to treat the problem.  Root lesion nematodes are migratory endoparasites that move around in the soil and feed on the cortex of the root of the trees and Daniel was advised to aggressively attack the problem through conventional protocols.  “We threw the book at it; we tried absolutely everything under the sun.”, he said.  Daniel estimates that with the money he and his father-in-law spent trying to control the nematodes, they could have fumigated with methyl bromide four times, and the extensive chemical treatment approach with numerous nematicides generated no tangible progress.  Daniel said that it was painful to watch.

Unruh Walnut Orchard

Daniel and Rachelle's Walnut Orchard

Fortunately, the southern 90 acres of the property did not have this issue, so trees planted there fared much better in the early going and, according to Daniel, looked completely different than those in the northern 103 acres.  He was counseled multiple times to, “Just jerk those trees out of that field,” but Daniel chose to nurse those trees along and restore their health through regenerative practices.

First Steps Down the Regenerative Path

Around this time, researchers at the University of California- Davis (UC-Davis) were trialing the new nematode control product Nimitz, a nematicide that was in the label-approval process at that time.  Daniel said the research results indicated that Nimitz was showing great promise so he asked about the possibility of trialing it in his orchard but was only offered a very small amount—just enough for 30 trees when he needed to treat 11,000-plus trees.

Cover Crops in an Orchard

Cover Crops Growing in the Orchard

Daniel learned that the principle active ingredients in Nimitz were derived from mustard, which prompted him wonder what would happen if he planted actual mustard in the orchard?  Daniel likened this revelation to a light bulb turning on. He decided to give it a try.

Not having prior experience with cover crops, Daniel considered hiring a neighbor who had a minimum-till, 20-foot drill to plant a cover crop for him in 2013.  However, the spacing between rows of trees in his orchard is 30 feet, which is much narrower than for pecans, the primary tree nut crop in his area. Daniel was changing to no-till, and devised what he termed a “controlled spill” method to get the mustard seed planted. In this method he broadcast the mustard and grass seed on the ground, and whatever germinated and grew was what he had.

Looking back, Daniel recalled that, given the nematode issues he was encountering in 2012 and 2013, his first attempt at planting a cover crop was a success.  He was especially impressed with the nematode count drop that occurred between November 2013 and June 2014. Detectable nematodes dropped by over 40% in his orchard without spraying a nematicide, which was in stark contrast to what they had been doing with the attempts at chemical control of the nematodes. The chemical-control approach simply was not working.

The results from his first attempt at a cover crop impressed upon Daniel the value of having something viable growing underneath the trees in his orchard.  That first nematode test demonstrated greater success with his cover crop, in just seven months, than his prior attempts to treat chemically.  “Do I believe it was a 40% reduction across the board on the entire farm,” Daniel said.  “We simply cannot verify that.  While that's what the tests showed, because nematode concentrations vary and counts can be so fickle, you can't pin it down.”  However, it was a dramatic difference and a very positive change for the health of his trees.

From that point, Daniel has continued to incorporate cover crop mixes into his orchard with continued success.  By June 2018, his nematode samples revealed that no plant parasitic nematodes were found in the orchard.

More To It Than Just Yield

The walnut trees in Daniel’s north field have such damaged root systems because of the root lesion nematodes that he doesn’t think they will ever recover to the point where their yields will match what is expected in the area.  By 2016, he had his best yield in the north field of 4,200 lbs. an acre.  Conventional farmers in the area consistently harvest between 7,000 and 8,000 lbs/acre in the prime of an orchard's life.  However, despite the reduced yields due to the prior nematode damage, Daniel’s cost per acre of production was such that he realized what he characterizes as a decent net profit.

Despite the lower yields because of the root damage, farming regeneratively has allowed Daniel to reduce his input usage so much that he has remained profitable through the 2022 season. “In other words, I paid taxes,” he said. “So with, at best, half a crop, I still needed to pay federal income taxes.” Profit calculations involve the entire business function so even though Daniel’s total gross revenue is less than it could be because of the nematode damage, the decrease in total gross revenue was more than offset by the cost savings that result from farming regeneratively.  Daniel realized the value of net profits per acre rather than gross profits per acre.

In late 2022, the bottom fell out of the walnut market to 30-35 cents a pound. Growers producing less-than-ideal varieties, such as the Vina variety, struggled to find a market. One Vina variety producer said he shook the walnuts to the ground and shredded or composted them, using the nut crop as a soil amendment. The Vina variety typically cannot match the quality of the Chandler variety and when the walnut market is depressed, as it has been recently, the handlers will not be interested in any output with production traits suggesting substandard quality. If the nut meat is dark, for example, those nuts have little or no value, even the high-quality ones.

Current market conditions have Daniel diligently exploring direct marketing opportunities rather than relying on the commodity market. He is working with Taste Profit Marketing to develop a brand, business, and marketing strategy. Daniel said, “At the end of this little saga, we hope to have a website up and running.”  The couple plans to launch the new business strategy and website in the fall of 2023 offering regeneratively produced raw walnuts, cold-pressed walnut oil, and a variety of value-added walnut-based products.

As of the time of the interview, Daniel was expecting delivery of two semi-loads of their Chandler variety walnuts back from the sheller. That handler custom shelled and packed their walnuts into 25-pound boxes. From there, Daniel plans to repackage the product into smaller units and start selling at farmers’ markets. “We have our tent, our table set up and have our scale certified,” he said. “We're actively going down that road.”

The couple has purchased a press to extract oil from their walnuts and are actively producing cold-pressed walnut oil.  As a side note, we have tried the walnut oil and it is fantastic.

Daniel said, “industry insiders,” the walnut handlers he’s been working with, are among the reasons for depressed walnut prices. Carryover inventories from the previous year are much higher than usual so the total supply is much higher than typical. Weak export markets, along with shipping backlogs at ports, restrict product flows to meet demand. Finally, other countries are boosting output, including China (which produces most of the walnuts they consume) and Chile. Located in the southern hemisphere, Chile’s production season is the opposite of U.S. growers. Walnuts in Chile are harvested in April, while in the U.S., harvest is in October, which means walnut buyers can now purchase new crop walnuts twice per year. The result is a more robust world supply with more output and a more diverse time frame, all leading to what Daniel describes as a softer walnut market in California.

Despite these global developments in the walnut markets, Daniel is now positioned to explore and develop alternative markets.  Most of the neighboring orchards are strictly commodity oriented and conventional managed, limiting their alternative market options.  By moving to regenerative production, Daniel can offer consumers something most of the other Central Valley walnut growers cannot.

Daniel made an initial decision to stop synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and did not apply any in his orchards for three years, which may have been somewhat detrimental. “It’s part of our story,” he said.  “Sometimes the best lessons learned are the ones that affect you the most. Quitting synthetic nitrogen cold turkey as I did was probably not wise.” He recognizes now that he could have gradually weaned his orchards down from the previous high nitrogen levels the trees had acclimated to.  Daniel attributes much to being a young farmer with limited soil experience, believing his soil was in better shape than it was and overestimating the orchard’s ability to harness more atmospheric nitrogen than it did.

This is a common mistake that some make when starting their regenerative journey.  Soils that have been degraded through the continual use of synthetic fertilizers and chemicals have to first have a biological base rebuilt before stopping fertility applications.  Using a suite of soil tests that include the Haney Test, PLFA Test, Wet Aggregate Stability, and a TND Test can help in this decision-making process.

Daniel resumed applying synthetic nitrogen, but only at a rate of about 45 units per acre, in contrast to the industry norm application rate of 200- 250 units per acre.  The key factor is the timing of the applications.  Timing to bud differentiation, the ovulation period of the tree when it predetermines the nut set for the following year, is crucial because the extra energy at that developmental stage could boost nut yields in the coming growing season.

Even with the drop in production due to his initial cutting of synthetic nitrogen use, Daniel said any financial damage was minimized because of the skyrocketing nitrogen fertilizer prices. His cost savings have been tremendous, and he has also saved on insecticides and fungicides. He has not sprayed a full canopy foliar insecticide, particularly for mites and codling moths, nor applied fungicides since the 2016-2017 growing seasons.

Biological Insect Control

To control codling moths (Cydia pomonella), Daniel uses pheromone mating disruption. Because female codling moths in heat emit a pheromone that drifts on the breeze, the male moths follow that pheromone upwind in search of a mate. Daniel pays $50/acre for this biological control strategy, which he says has been a reasonable antidote. He hasn’t had any codling moth pressure and they’ve caught very few in their traps the last two years. He uses pheromone distributors, called puffers, with aerosol cans that release the pheromone at certain atmospheric conditions and times of the day. They monitor codling moth conditions, and when the moths are most active, they canvass the entire farm with the female pheromone, creating pandemonium and confusion for the males because they are convinced many females are all around, but they can’t find them.

Daniel uses beneficial insect distribution for biological control to combat two-spotted spider mites (Tetranychus urticae). His predator of choice for two-spotted spider mites is Neoseiulus californicus mites. This strategy for spider mite control is only a fraction of what it costs per acre for conventional control through chemical applications.  “Depending on the insecticide used, you're going to spend anywhere from $60- $80 per acre per application on insecticide,” Daniel said. “You want to vary modes of action and the chemistry used. You might use a $60 material one time, a $70 material next time, and an $80 material the next time, and then repeat the process. Ultimately you want to basically nuke everything, including all the beneficials and predators, to wipe out the mites.” Unfortunately, the bad bugs tend to return with a vengeance, compared to before spraying, which means spraying multiple times with various insecticides throughout the growing season.

Daniel uses a modified leaf blower mounted on a four-wheeler to distribute the californicus mites. He made a metering device to control insect dispersal with seed metering roller that drops the beneficials into a tube. The air discharge is past that point; the resulting suction creates a Venturi effect, pulling the beneficial insects in and blowing them up into the center of the trees. His device is designed such that it controls the airflow to prevent damaging the beneficial insects.

Daniel’s regenerative practices, using beneficial insects and beneficial insect food, particularly wintergreen, cost him about $4-6 per acre for the season, a substantial cost savings for insect control compared to conventional practices.  To put this into proper perspective, conventional walnut orchards are spending $60-$80 per acre for anywhere from one to more than three annual insecticide applications to control pests.  By using biological controls, coupled with regenerative principles and practices, Daniel is spending $4- $6 per acre annually for pest control.  It doesn’t take long to do that math.

Codling Moth

Codling Moth

Two-Spotted Spider Mite

Two-Spotted Spider Mite

Californicus Mite Preying on a Two-Spotted Mite

Californicus Mite Preying on a Two-Spotted Mite

Regenerative Ag and Water Use

Daniel uses what he calls a solid-set irrigation system. The Unruhs have pressure bowls in their well and irrigation water is distributed through buried water lines running down the tree rows. At every other tree, there is an irrigation block, with a full-coverage sprinkler set at 8-10 inches above the ground, allowing Daniel to irrigate 30 acres per block in his 90-acre field and 34 acres per block in his north field.

Four more than four years in a row, the Central Valley has experienced significant drought conditions.  Daniel explained how his regenerative farming practices set him up to capitalize on an any unexpected rain event.  His fields infiltrate rainfall (and irrigation) far better than they did prior to implementing regenerative practices.  He recognizes the role that incorporating regenerative production practices has played in increasing his farm’s resiliency, especially in his north field, where the trees’ root systems have nematode damage.

Whenever there is a rainfall event, Daniel no longer has to irrigate, saving him the cost of the electricity needed to pump the irrigation water. In 2022, Daniel irrigated the orchard in the latter part of August.  About two weeks later they had what Daniel called a freak storm pattern, with about 2.25” of rain. Daniel said, “It was a huge cost and water saver. I didn’t have to irrigate again, even into early winter.”

Daniel said the cover crops provide a protective layer that helps minimize water loss due to evaporation and minimize any water loss due to runoff.   “That tells me the trees with roots in the top 4-6 inches, where a lot of the feeder roots would be, are still capable of harvesting moisture, even after an entire dry-harvest period. In my mind, there's something to be said for that, he said. “Now [when it rains], I'm getting free irrigation, which we're very thankful for.”

Daniel’s irrigation savings, due to significantly increased aggregation in his soil and resultant enhanced water infiltration rates, are now between 15-20% annually.  This is even more significant relative to the multi-year drought conditions and water issues in California.

“When you till the soil, it typically gets a crust and seals over, and if you get very much rain on it whatsoever, it either puddles up and evaporates or runs off,” he said. Either way, it's gone. On Daniel’s farm that no longer happens. The morning after an inch of rain, there’s no water sitting anywhere. It's infiltrating, and we’re absorbing everything we're getting, so that's a huge boon for us,” Daniel said.  Now he’s able to capture the benefit of whatever rain that does fall. In one recent instance, he did not irrigate for more than two months, in contrast to the neighboring orchards that continued to irrigate during that time period.

Integrating Livestock

Daniel integrated sheep into his operation beginning in 2021.  His intentional application of the Six Principles of Soil Health led him to believe it would be beneficial to incorporate the sixth principle of integrating animal impact.  He already had the other five principles covered, so this was the obvious next step.

He has been very pleased with the response in his orchards to date and plans to continue with animal integration.  Daniel does not own the sheep but is working with a local sheep producer to gain the biological and fertility impact that the sheep have to offer, coordinating with the owner when the sheep arrive and depart each year.  To comply with the 120-day, before-harvest removal period required by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the sheep typically arrive sometime in February and are removed in late May to mid-June.

Sheep grazing in Walnut Field

Sheep Grazing Peacefully in the Walnut Orchard

Ewes and Feeder Lambs Grazing

The Combination of Ewes and Feeder Lambs Works Well

There are huge benefits to incorporating regeneratively managed livestock into cropping and orchard operations:

  • Through adaptive grazing practices, the livestock add tremendous fertility to the soil through their manure and urine.
  • They shed literally billions of microbes onto the soil through their saliva, hair coats, manure and urine. These microbes are symbiotic with the microbes in the soil and create microbial quorum sensing, which stimulates a significant increase in the active soil microbial population.
  • The sheep bring in increased biology because of the biology in their rumen (gut).
  • The influence of the livestock enhances nutrient cycling and water infiltration.
  • The livestock stimulate the latent seed bank in the soil and facilitate greater plant species diversity, leading directly to greater beneficial insect, pollinator and bird species diversity.
  • The capture of nutrition into a non-volatile form going from green living plants to manure in a largely stable environment.
  • The livestock are an additional revenue stream generated from the same acres. So instead of just one revenue stream annually from the same acres, there are now two.  Two types of foods are being produced from the same acres and resources within a given year.

In the 2022 grazing season, the sheep owner brought in 450 bred Dorper-Katahdin cross ewes. Dorper and Katahdin sheep are hair breeds, meaning that they have hair instead of wool.  The ewes average from 140-150 lbs. The sheep owner prefers to lamb his flock in Daniel’s orchards because he says that the lambs are healthier, and he has fewer issues.  In addition, another 200-250 feeder lambs were brought in to graze in Daniel’s orchards, which provided Daniel with a total of about 75,000 lbs. of sheep to impact the fertility and biology of his orchards.

Daniel said he does most of the daily moves of the sheep himself and greatly enjoys helping manage the sheep. By making the moves himself, he can carefully observe the impact of each day’s graze and make adjustments in paddock sizes as needed.

The sheep are managed using temporary polywire fencing, utilizing multiple strands on the perimeters to prevent the sheep from getting out and onto the busy roads that border his orchard.  This is usually a four-strand polywire fence that can be set up each grazing season and taken back down for walnut harvest.

Polywire Fencing
Polywire Fencing for Sheep
Portable Solar Panel

Portable Solar Panel Energizer Used to Power Electric Fencing

Polywire Fencing Used for Sheep Containment on the Perimeter of the Orchards

The temporary fencing is powered by a solar panel energizer, which makes it easy and efficient to keep the fences charged.  It also allows Daniel to move the energizer around the orchard to where it is needed at any given time.

Guardian dogs are used to protect the sheep from predators, including coyotes and mountain lions, the latter of which have been reported to follow hunters during the hunting season.

Daniel uses adaptive grazing management with paddock grazing and moves the flock daily into paddocks of approximately 1.7 acres in size. At about 75,000 total pounds of sheep in the flock, that provides him with a stock density impact of approximately 37,500 lbs/acre.

Guardian Dog Guarding the Sheep

One of the Guardian Dogs on Duty Guarding the Sheep

His goal is to graze each paddock once per grazing season, but the cover crop in his orchard is performing so well that he hasn’t stocked enough animals to hit that goal, let alone come back through for a second grazing.  In 2022, he had about 30 acres on his father-in-law’s farm that he didn’t graze at all because it was time to remove the livestock before he could get the sheep through those paddocks. These ungrazed paddocks reflect the productivity of Daniel’s cover-cropped land and the forage biomass being produced.

evidence of trample
evidence of trample

Evidence of the Fertility Applied and Degree of Trample From the Sheep

In his father-in-law’s orchard of seeded oats, edible beans, peas, and vetch, Daniel performed some clippings to determine total forage biomass being produced and found that the dry-matter weight equaled about seven tons per acre.  In this case, instead of harvesting the forage mechanically, they harvested it through the sheep, assuring that the nutrients from the cover crop were reincorporated into the soil.

Daniel noted that his mustard cover crop was taller than his orchard tractor, which is about eight feet tall. “I've been in the orchard with my cover crop roller, and the mustard was so tall that I could not see well enough to go my normal speed,” he said.  “I had to slow down so I could follow the trees back down. We're talking one or two feet over the top of the tractor, and you're trying to push that down and not hit a tree because you don't want to skin it.” Daniel said he marveled at the massive amount of biomass that can be produced in his area during the wintertime, which provides significant benefit for the whole nutrient cycle, the biological cycle, and increases in diversity and profitability.

To effectively roll down the cover crop prior to walnut harvest each year, Daniel uses a chevron blade style roller crimper.  Because it must fit perfectly between the row spacing of his trees, Daniel was able to put his mechanical and engineering skills to use to fabricate a custom roller crimper for his specific needs.

Roller crimper
Roller Crimper

Daniel’s Custom-Built Roller Crimper

Regenerative Practices and Principles

Daniel recognized early on that, with the root damage in his orchard, he would never be a high-yielding producer. Instead, he began exploring ways to be more efficient with his dollars spent on crop inputs.  “I wanted to do the most holistic thing because ultimately, I am responsible for taking care of the ecosystem around me,” he said.  His objective was to take the principles of regenerative agriculture and apply those to his orchard.

Cover cropping is one of the primary regenerative practices Daniel uses. He said he studiously minimizes synthetic inputs, but when those inputs are necessary, Daniel said he aims to manage them so that he “gets the most bang for the buck.” He also seeks alternatives to conventional chemical inputs, using fish emulsion applied through his irrigation system instead of spreading chemical nitrogen. Animal integration with adaptive grazing and stewardship has been especially effective, too.

Daniel acknowledges that he, like many farmers, has been influenced by “the fear of what could happen,” instead of looking at the facts and deciding what is or isn’t a problem. When solving problems, he suggests finding a balanced approach that considers the risks versus benefits of addressing the issue, asking if the same strategies used before actually solve the problem, or might it develop into an even bigger problem? And also asking, “Are there cost-effective alternatives to mitigate this risk?” Daniel said he believes regenerative agriculture is a management mindset that incorporates nature into agriculture production, specifically land management.

‘Edible yield’

When it comes to production, Daniel says that the “edible yield” from his orchards is in the top 30%. Edible yield is a measure of the meat (the portion of the edible walnut) relative to the total nut, including the shell and the packing tissue. Typically, between 40-50% of a walnut is meat, or edible yield.

He attributes much of his orchard’s performance to its age, because trees yield their best fruit when they’re young. “It seems like the conditions in my north field (the nematode-caused root damage) would cause a reduction in quality, but I haven't experienced that,” he said. “That means there are benefits beyond yield due to the regenerative practices I have put into action.”

Another issue that adversely affects edible yield is “tip shrivel,” which results when the tips of the lobes, or walnut meat, are shriveled. Daniel said he believes his harvests have less tip shrivel than his conventionally producing neighbors. While nobody knows what causes it, Daniel hypothesizes that it’s related to an over-hydration in the nut, so when the nut converts the gel to oil, the excess moisture evaporates and disappears and doesn't get converted because water doesn’t convert to oil. “I know I used the term over-hydration,” he said,” “And some people could potentially mistake that for overwatering, but it’s not an overwatering issue. In my opinion, it’s more of an electrolyte imbalance within the plant.”

Key Points of Progress

The key points of progress and regenerative successes Daniel lists as a result of adopting a regenerative production mindset include:

  • Reduced synthetic input use.
  • Increased forage biomass production.
  • Increased water infiltration and water-holding capacity due to increased organic matter and improved soil structure.
  • Integrating livestock as an additional revenue generating stream.
  • Soil organic matter (SOM) increased from an average of 1.7% to over 3.0%, with even more significant increases expected by integrating livestock.
  • Irrigating every 9-12 days, as opposed to every seven days.
  • Mitigated nematode infestation with the incorporation of mustard in his cover crop mix.
  • Used pheromone mating disruption to control codling moths.
  • Deployed californicus predator mites to control two-spotted spider mites.
  • Used mating-disruption strategies to control orange worm infestations.
  • Hired by neighbors to distribute beneficial insects for biological control in their certified organic orchards, as well as neighboring non-organic orchards. The conventional products are not working well anymore due to resistance development.

Daniel’s highest input cost year was in 2017, when his inputs averaged $741 per acre.  By 2022, those per-acre input costs were down to an average of $375.  That is an input cost decrease of $366 per acre over just five years.  To put these numbers into perspective, Daniel says that neighboring walnut orchards are averaging close to $2,000 per acre in annual input costs, due in part to the sudden rise in the price of fertilizer, fuel, chemicals, synthetic fertilizer and most other agricultural inputs in 2020.

Daniel does not have the highest yields when compared to his conventional neighbors, which is partly due to the early nematode damage in his orchards.  However, what he does have is higher net profitability per acre.  Daniel said he now understands that chasing the highest yields is not the path to profitability, but rather the ability to reduce inputs he previously thought were necessary and being able to take advantage of rainfall that readily infiltrates into his soil.

Biggest Surprises

Daniel said that one of the biggest surprises stemming from his adoption of regenerative practices was that it worked. “I didn't have anything to doubt that nature works, but I didn't know if it was going to be completely applicable to my production agriculture,” he said.  Specifically, his biggest surprise was that his first release of the californicus mites to control two-spotted spider mites worked as well as it did.

Daniel said his friend said to him, “I like where you're at. And I like what you're doing. But I don't know how to get from where I am to where you are.” Daniel said he advised him to learn as much as he can about regenerative principles and practice and then advised, “Don't make major changes too quickly. Just take it one step at a time.  We have to do our own research on our own farms.  If you have doubt lingering, then implement regenerative practices on a portion of your farm first.   As you make progress, you can expand the practices onto the whole farm.  Like [regenerative farming pioneer] Gabe Brown often says, ’We’ve spent decades depleting our soils. It takes some time to wean our soils off their addiction to chemical and synthetic fertilizers.’”

Key Influencers and Influences

Daniel identified the problems he faced with his trees as his top key influencer. Knowing that maintaining the status quo with conventional production was merely adding to the problems rather than solving them, he was spurred to explore holistic alternatives. Daniel’s interest in regenerative production heightened when he saw the reduction of nematode numbers after his first mustard cover crop.

As he learned more about soil biology, soil health, and regenerative agriculture, he was influenced by the practices and teachings of Gabe Brown, Ray Archuleta, Allen Williams, and Shane New, all partners within Understanding Ag and instructors for the Soil Health Academy.  He was also influenced by people like Joel Salatin and Greg Judy. Daniel identified these as his primary influencers as he progressed down his regenerative journey.

Daniel said things began to really click when he met Gabe in 2016 at the EcoFarm Conference –where he was exposed more clearly to the differences between conventional and regenerative approaches to farming. In particular, he recognized how the reductionist model of conventional agriculture seeks to kill anything that hinders production, while regenerative agriculture seeks to mimic nature’s principles and foster more life.

Through Gabe, Daniel connected with Understanding Ag and attended his first Soil Health Academy (SHA) in November 2018, hosted at Chico State University.  That was the year of the devasting wildfires in Northern California and the nearby town of Paradise was almost wiped off the map.  Daniel still remembers the smoke in the air as he attended the academy and how that convinced him that there has to be a better way.

Daniel said he has also attended “all kinds of farm meetings where the stated topic was biology.” Unfortunately, he said he found a limited understanding of soil biology at many of those events where most of the advice was limited to simply planting cover crops or maybe another practice or two, but few “put it together like the Soil Health Academy.”  One of the key points that Daniel has learned is that biological diversity is critical to regenerative success.

He has been through a second Soil Health Academy since then, has been a guest speaker at several academies and his farm has served as a host site for an SHA school. In addition, Daniel takes advantage of opportunities to attend as many regenerative workshops and conferences as possible.

Soil Health Academy

A Soil Health Academy Class at Daniel’s Farm

Wildlife, Birds, and Insects

Daniel has seen the wildlife and bird populations increase dramatically by adopting and implementing regenerative production practices and reports that there are deer “all over the place.” He strategically manages his cover crops to promote increasing the wild turkey population by supporting their nesting and hatching. His hired field man told Daniel he “loves to walk your field because this is one of the few fields that has songbirds in it.”

Minimizing chemical insecticide use supports bird populations. “It’s a Bug-Eat-Bug World out there,” Daniel said.  “If you’re going to have a predator, you’ll have to have prey because the beneficials must have a food source.” Daniel said that spraying insecticides wipes out everything, including the beneficials and only exacerbates the problems.

By adding complex cover crop mixes and reducing chemical pesticide use, he has provided a far better habitat for the pollinator insects and has noticed the population of pollinators in his orchards has increased significantly.


Daniel and Rachelle recognize that they struggled at the beginning of their farming journey.  At times, they were not certain they would make it.  By first being exposed to regenerative principles and then taking the effort to educate themselves in the practical application of regenerative principles within the context of their farm, they have come miles from where they were.

They now have real hope and real results.  Not only do they feel they have a future in walnut production, but they now understand they have a whole other world of opportunities through value-added production and marketing and through multiple enterprise production on the same acres.  They are no longer constrained to the conventional farming mindset and realize their options are only limited by their own imaginations.

Daniel said he now wonders what might have happened if he planted an orchard in soil that had not been continuously exposed to synthetic and chemical inputs.  “How much faster would my progress have been?” he asks.  And while he may never definitively know the answer to that question, Daniel is certain that his regenerative journey continues to yield progress, benefits and joy that have far exceeded his expectations.

Livestock at Unruh Farms
Walnut grove

Some More Pictures from Around the Farm

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