Implementing Whole Farm Cycling of Nutrients and Carbon with Orchard Waste in Walnut & Cherry Production in Central Valley CA

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2022: $24,961.00
Projected End Date: 05/31/2024
Grant Recipient: John Eilers Farms
Region: Western
State: California
Principal Investigator:
Franz Eilers
John Eilers Farms


  • Fruits: cherries
  • Nuts: walnuts


  • Crop Production: nutrient cycling
  • Natural Resources/Environment: carbon sequestration
  • Soil Management: composting

    Proposal summary:

    Central Valley’s smaller family orchards are facing severe economic and environmental pressures. With new regulations and increasing input costs, these growers are experiencing unprecedented challenges to their survival. The applicant’s farm is transitioning now to the next generation and is sharply aware that practices must change and innovate in order to remain sustainable. By law, agricultural burning is being phased out, and ordinances controlling and monitoring nitrogen application rates are coming into effect. The practices of burning organic waste and excessive nitrogen inputs are recognized  as not sustainable and generally harmful to the environment, and to farming.


    This project implements an alternative through nutrient-cycling a season’s orchard-waste, cover-crop plant mass and local agricultural waste into compost that then is returned to the orchard. The design also captures carbon from orchard-waste: prunings and dead trees; better preserves nutrients from cover-crops; and proposes local food processor culls and manures. Compost will be built with the advice of consultants and scientists familiar with biodynamic compost methods. The aim is to minimize off-farm inputs, which create a fragile economic and biologic system, and to enlarge the intrinsic nutrient and carbon base within a stable farm system. This project will be shared through site-visits with San Joaquin County growers, biodynamic growers of Northern California, and identified stakeholders. Efforts will be measured through team observations, data collected, and feedback from stakeholders.

    Project objectives from proposal:


    • (a) Develop a pilot compost program, for 40 acres (20 walnut / 20 cherry), on-farm that can incorporate the acres’ woody mass orchard-waste back into a nutrient-cycled soil amendment. This compost offers an alternative to open burning and an opportunity to offset carbon inputs and nitrogen fertilizer applications, the latter which are becoming more costly and threatening to ground water quality. A largely self-sustaining, closed-cycle nutrient cycle has been demonstrated for organic-biodynamic farming (Kaffka & Koepf), and conversion to biodynamic methods emphasizing compost use over imported fertilizers has been shown to significantly reduce tile-drainage nitrate collected across farms (Goldstein, Scully, Kohl and Shearer).
    • (b) Capture carbon from orchard wood waste. In composting this waste we aim to capture at least 50% more carbon than the 0% carbon captured now in open burning practices.
    • (c ) Seek the reduction of non-organic fertilizer inputs currently contributing to surface and groundwater nitrogen contamination through cycling nutrients with biodynamic methods.
    • (d) Better utilize nutrients available in orchard-waste, cover-crop and other agricultural waste materials through composting them. 
    • (e) Evaluate the feasibility of the project as a cost effective and beneficial solution to identified needs within the resources accessible to the Eilers and for comparable farms in San Joaquin County.


    • (a) Evaluate project replicability for comparable Walnut and Cherry orchards in Central Valley California. 
    • (b) Open a research conversation about the possible application and benefits of biodynamic methods in Walnut and Cherry orchards in Central Valley CA.  Sharing this project with the growers in Northern California offers new frontiers for the application of closed-cycle biodynamic methods in large scale agriculture. Wine growers have had great success with it in recent years, both for benefits to sustainability, product quality and value. However, these methods used on vineyards could be translatable and have not been seen in nut and stone fruit growers yet in the Central Valley.
    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.