Nuts about skydiving
July/August 2014 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Jennifer Harrison
Photos by Matt Salvo
Third-generation walnut farmer has his eye on the sky
Walnut farmer Paul Gilbert, on his 63rd jump, sees a lot of parallels between farming and skydiving. (Photo courtesy of Paul Rodriguez of Adrenaline Obsession at Skydive Sacramento.)
Paul Gilbert needs a moment. While the third-generation walnut farmer is used to looking up to monitor his family's 500-plus acres of trees, today he'll be looking down, viewing the Sutter and Yuba county farmland from 13,000 feet.
But he won't be seated on a commercial jet eating a bag of nuts. He'll be falling through the air some 2 1/2 miles above his nut trees—skydiving.
"I need to gather my thoughts before I go up," he explained as he suited up and went through the mental checklist that always precedes his jumping out of an airplane.
Paul Gilbert, right, and his family, from left, uncle Jack, cousin Jack Jr. and father Bill, grow walnuts in Sutter and Yuba counties.
It's Gilbert's 63rd jump, which means he's a relative newbie to the sport, but two years into it—and he's hooked. Why? For one thing, skydiving gives him a fresh perspective on California agriculture.
"It kind of blows your mind," he said. "There are a lot of people in this. There are a lot of families in this. What's my little speck of land? You have a tremendous amount of acreage to look at—whether it's rice, prunes, walnuts, apricots, it's just incredible."
Working for walnuts
There are a handful of U.S. crops that are commercially produced only in California, and that includes walnuts. In fact, 99 percent of all American-grown walnuts come from the Golden State.
Walnuts form inside a protective green hull that splits before harvest.
Among the state's approximate 227,000 walnut-bearing acres are Gilbert Orchards and Yankee Orchards, owned and operated by Gilbert along with his father Bill, uncle Jack and cousin Jack Jr. His grandfather, initially in the creamery business, bought a ranch in Wheatland, about 30 miles north of Sacramento, in the 1920s. The family dabbled in peaches and almonds before growing walnuts.
After college, Gilbert worked in finance in San Francisco before returning to the family business. His father, a banker, had done the same.
"I didn't want to go directly back to the family farm," Gilbert said. "That's healthy because you can bring things back to the family farm, whether it's skills in computers and so on."
Today, Gilbert manages the day-to-day operations of growing walnuts: planting, painting (which helps prevent sun damage to a tree's trunk), pruning and irrigating.
"I like to be out in the field, I like driving equipment," he said. "It's soothing."
But growing walnuts also requires a lot of patience. It takes about seven to 10 years from the time a tree is planted until it yields a full harvest.
There are more than 30 varieties of commercially produced walnuts, and the Gilberts primarily grow the Chandler variety. Chandler yields a consistent white meat, which is the edible portion of the nut. Harvest is mid-September to early November, and most of the Gilberts' walnuts are sold to foreign markets.
Solar panels on top of the farm's shop provide renewable energy.
"Farmers work a tremendous amount of hours, sometimes odd hours," Gilbert said.
That launched him skyward, so to speak. He was looking for an outlet, an escape from the routine, and he decided to try skydiving.
Up in the air
Gilbert sees a lot of parallels between farming and skydiving.
"Bottom line: risk, calculated risk," he said. "There's a lot to learn in skydiving. There's a lot to learn in agriculture. You just don't get it in the first year. It changes year to year, just like skydiving."
The folks at Skydive Sacramento agree, including instructor Brian Kirkpatrick, who remembers one of Gilbert's first solo jumps.
"The first jump didn't go according to plan, if you will," Kirkpatrick laughed. "The majority of his first skydive was on his back, which is not what we taught. We got sorted out and he landed the parachute. He came back the next week and has been jumping ever since."
Gilbert boards a plane for his 63rd skydiving jump, where he gets a birds-eye view of his 500-plus acres of trees.
The skydiving community is close knit and prides itself on promoting safety above all else. Gilbert usually skydives from nearby Lincoln or Davis, but has also jumped in Arizona. He said he is drawn to the energy and enthusiasm within the skydiving world.
"They have a passion and want to share that passion," Gilbert said. "Farmers do that, too. People are looking for new and innovative ways to do things."
Gilbert sometimes brings bags of walnuts to his fellow skydivers and proudly displays Farm Bureau, California Bountiful and "I B a Farmer" stickers on his helmet, a nod to his dual life as an extreme sport enthusiast and walnut farmer.
Gilbert says both skydiving and farming involve an element of risk. He is one of California's 4,000 walnut farmers, who produce 99 percent of all American-grown walnuts.
"Paul is the first farmer I know that's been here," said Paul Rodriguez, another instructor at Skydive Sacramento. "He does disappear during harvest, though."
Harvest aside, skydiving over his own farm provides Gilbert vital information about his trees: what needs trimming and what needs tending.
"I'm critical of my own orchard—oh great, there's a dead tree," he said. "Nobody notices except me."
What he also notices is how peaceful it is in the air. This may sound odd, as skydiving entails exiting the plane and free-falling at 120 miles an hour for 60 seconds. But once the parachute deploys between 5,000 and 3,500 feet, speed decreases and it's time to take in the views. Gilbert embraces it all.
"Fear is good, it makes you human," he said. "I jumped out of a plane. How do you top that?"
Wonderful world of walnuts
Walnuts are the oldest tree food known to man, tracing back to 7000 B.C. California provides 75 percent of the world's walnuts.
- Walnuts came to California in the late 1700s, cultivated by Franciscan fathers and known in the early days as "mission" walnuts.
- Today, there are more than 4,000 walnut growers in California.
- Walk through a walnut orchard in late August and you'll see a lot of green. Walnuts are surrounded by a green hull that covers the shell. Once that hull splits to reveal the shelled walnut inside, harvest begins.
- Harvest, from September to November, is mechanical. Machines are used to shake the trees to knock walnuts to the ground, pick up the nuts for cleaning and remove the outer green husks.
- Nutrient-rich walnuts provide protein, fiber, minerals, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. Recent studies show that eating walnuts may help the brain function and send proper signals as we age.
Source: California Walnut Board