Fall Grower Highlight: Russell Family Farms

Jim Russell grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania, where his family raised hogs and cattle, and all the food to feed them, such as corn, barley, wheat, oats, and buckwheat. At age 17, when his parents offered to mortgage the farm to send him to college, he knew it would not be the right thing for him then, so he signed up for the Marine Corps instead.

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He did three tours of duty in Vietnam, was posted to lots of different bases, and even did two years as commanding officer of the Marine Corps detachment on a nuclear powered cruiser, tasked with securing the nuclear weapon as his primary responsibility.

“You go where the Corps tells you to go, you do what they tell you to do,” Russell says, recalling his 20 years in the military. He married his high school sweetheart, had five children with her, rose to the rank of major, got divorced, and was based in Camp Pendleton and engaged to Barbara whom he met while studying for his bachelor’s, when tragedy struck.

Driving his motorcycle one night in 1977, he slid off the road, hit his head and severed his spinal cord, becoming paralyzed from the waist down. He spent seven months in the hospital. Once he got out, he married Barbara and adopted her daughter, completed his bachelor’s degree, and began studying for his M.B.A at San Diego State University.

Circling back to farming roots

For a business school project, he studied the economics of starting a macadamia farm and his professor told him it would be worth pursuing. He had purchased a few acres in Fallbrook and was wondering if it would be viable to grow macadamia trees, which was how the project came about and led to his second career as a farmer, with Russell Family Farms.

“I knew macadamias at that point, I liked eating them, so I thought maybe I could sell those suckers,” Russell says.

Macadamias are native to Australia, and were introduced in Hawaii in 1881, and soon after in California. They began to be planted commercially in the 1950s and production peaked in the 1960s before acreage dwindled due to challenges with the costs of water, labor and land. It continues to be grown in small to medium sized orchards in the state, and is a small, specialty crop.

In San Diego, there are about 1,000 trees, and Russell has about 200 in his orchard. Asked if he chose macadamias for their value as a specialty crop, he laughs and relates an old adage. “I wanted to do something to make money with,” he says, “If you want to make a small fortune in farming, you start with a big fortune, and pretty soon, it will be small.”

It’s a way of life, but not one he would recommend to everyone, especially since the trees suck up as much water as thirsty avocado trees, which add up to high water costs.

A DIY story

To get started, he did need to get up to speed with growing tree nuts, so he joined the California Macadamia Society, bought up all their yearbooks and educated himself on all things macadamia. He eventually became its president, and continues to serve in that role today.

He laid out a plan for the trees and water system, had help from his brother-in-law to create ditches, then put in the sprinkler system, got plants from the local nursery, planted seedlings and grafted them a year later.

“I dug the holes, my wife and mom planted it,” he recalls. Her work as a teacher and his pension helped fund their cost of living in the early years while they waited for the trees to produce nuts. 

Macadamias are his main crop, but he also grows lemons, limes, key limes, kumquats, pomelos, mulberries, and figs, and sells his produce every other Wednesday at the weekly Santa Monica farmers’ market, one of the biggest in the state.

He doesn’t advertise, but does get orders on the internet from people who were gifted a bag of macadamias from his orchard, and seek him out for more of the flavorful nuts.  

He now runs the orchard primarily with the help of two young men, grandsons of the man who first began helping him. His wife passed on, and his sons are settled in the east, while his daughters live in California, and one daughter lives on the farm, running her own business as a bee keeper and growing worms for soil enhancements.

He used to grow gourds and spent hundreds of hours carving them in intricate mathematical designs and selling them as art at the farmers’ market. Artists would also buy gourds for carving from him. But drought rations dictated that he get out of gourds and focus on using the water for his main crops. 

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Macadamia 101

The life cycle for tree nuts is long, and it took about 15 years before Russell began getting good production and breaking even, so having other sources of income helped make it possible to embark on the venture.

He also learned by trial and error. Every few years, a polar freeze would kill trees and this happened to him in his fourth year, wiping out 80 percent of his trees. “You learn the hard way to get some hardier stock and expand to other crops,” he says.

Most tree nuts are deciduous, blooming in spring and going dormant in fall, but macadamias are a year-round crop, and he harvests throughout the year. Most of the blooms set in February or March, and get harvested between November to January. When they’re ripe, they fall to the ground, so they don’t need to be picked.

Of the ten botanical varieties, only two yield edible nuts. The integrifolia is the type grown in most of the world, a smaller nut that is uniformly round but has less sugar content. Russell grows the tetraphylla variety, which has slightly more sugar and comes in all kinds of shapes.

“It’s like the difference between brown bread and white bread - it’s a little sweeter,” Russell explains. “There are also hybrids crossed with these two, that have characteristics of both.”

Because of the uneven shapes of the tetraphylla, it’s not easy to roast it since it can’t all be roasted at the same temperature. He sells both roasted nuts, and nuts in the shell. The latter require a special nutcracker to break them open. They are prized by raw foodies and vegans who like them for their flavor, texture and healthy fat content. 

His helpers hull the nuts year-round, almost daily during the peak harvesting season, and weekly at other times. The huller removes the green, fibrous husk and the nuts go in drying trays for about two weeks at ambient temperature. Russell runs a fan to prevent mold from forming since they go in wet. This reduces moisture content from 35 percent to 5 percent, at which point sugar is reduced and eliminated as well.

“This is when they taste a lot like a cross between a coconut and sweet peas,” he explains.

Next, the nuts go into a heated dryer set at 94 degrees, for a week. Then they’re separated by size, packed up into heavy plastic bags inside burlap bags, where they stay until they are ready to be sold. Larger kernels sell for a premium.

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Skilled veteran, marksman, farmer, and artist

At 77, Russell loves what he does and continues wearing many hats.

A crack shot with the pistol and rifle, Russell runs a shooting program for the non-profit Paralyzed Veterans of America, in which he has served in numerous roles since 1978. His gourd art has won many awards and has been published in many outlets.

He has 6 children, 12 grandchildren, and 2 great-grand children, and lives with his service dog. He finds his work to be rewarding and fulfilling.

“Enjoying mother nature is awesome. Farming is a great way to live. There are lots of set backs from mother nature, but that’s just part of the game. I was very fortunate to grow up on a farm as a young man, and I’m still doing it,” he reflects. “It’s kind of hard to beat living in Southern California, I can’t think of any place I’d rather be.”

Written by Padma Nagappan for the San Diego County Farm Bureau