MODESTO — Almond growers have blown past all expectations with Wednesday's forecast that the state's crop will hit 1.95 billion pounds.
The projected harvest, announced in Modesto by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, would be a boon to the area's economy if the price per pound holds up.
The estimate is up 11 percent from the initial projection in May of 1.75 billion pounds. And it is 19 percent higher than the record crop of 1.64 billion pounds last year, despite erratic weather at pollination time and later.
"Holy, moly, is that right?" said one of the 20 or so people who gathered for the noon announcement at the Almond Board of California headquarters atop the DoubleTree Hotel.
Industry leaders said continued growth in global demand will absorb the 2011 crop, averting a plunge in prices that would hurt growers.
"I really think it's a healthy number for the industry," said Dave Long, president of Hilltop Ranch Inc., a processor near Ballico.
The harvest will start in August.
California supplies more than 80 percent of the world's almonds. About 30 percent of the state's crop comes from Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties.
The 2011 grower prices are still in flux, but if they equal the average of $1.65 a pound the past two years, those three counties would bring in about $965 million.
That's welcome money in a region still feeling the effects of the housing collapse half a decade ago and job losses in retail, government and other sectors. Several thousand people work almost year-round at almond processing plants in the region, while many more provide goods and services to the industry.
Some of the nuts end up in snack bags or packages for home cooks, but most are sold to makers of candy, cereal, baked goods and other products.
A report from the Almond Board showed that the big 2010 crop has found buyers. Shipments totaled 1.42 billion pounds from August 2010 through May of this year, up from 1.26 billion a year earlier.
Long said he expects continued strength in the market through July, leaving a smaller carryover than a year ago.
A decade ago, industry people questioned whether they could sell a crop that was approaching 1 billion pounds. Now the volume is closing in on 2 billion pounds, but the worries have waned.
"I don't consider this a number that we can't deal with efficiently," said Richard Waycott, president and chief executive officer of the Almond Board.
This group has promoted research suggesting that almonds can help protect people from heart disease, cancer and other ills.
"We have one of the best specialty crops in the world, the healthiest specialty crop," Long said.
The May estimate was based on a telephone survey of 375 growers. The updated figure came from measurements of the nuts in 857 orchards by federal employees during most of June. The Almond Board pays for this work.
Wednesday's report estimated that the average acre will yield about 2,600 pounds of almonds, besting the record 2,400 in 2008. A slight increase in bearing acres, to about 750,000, also contributed to the 1.95 billion-pound projection.
"I am surprised by this," said Bob Nunes, general manager of Spycher Bros., a processor near Turlock. "I was thinking more like 1.85 billion."
The report said winter had enough of the "chilling hours" -- 45 degrees or less -- that the dormant trees need to prepare for bloom and pollination by bees.
This year also has brought heavy rain across the Central Valley, as well as freezes, hail and high winds in some places.
"Cold weather can affect bee activity, but the bees came through this year and the 2011 California almonds set an excellent crop," the report said.
The bee supply has been reduced in recent years because of a mysterious condition called colony collapse disorder, but experts said it has eased somewhat.
The report also cited improved irrigation supplies and a lack of major insect or disease outbreaks.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2385.