MODESTO — Walnut growers have started to shake a 2013 crop that looks to be the third biggest in state history.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service projected a harvest of 495,000 tons, just shy of last year's 497,000 and the record 504,000 in 2010.
The industry could use all the nuts it can get, as it has convinced people around the world that the product could help protect them from heart disease, cancer, memory loss and other ills.
San Joaquin County is the No. 1 producer in California, which accounts for about 75 percent of the world trade. The county had an estimated $457 million in gross income to growers last year, according to its crop report.
Stanislaus County is a major player, too, with $214 million in gross income reported.
The NASS report said volatile weather did not do much damage to this year's crop. November and December were very wet, and that built vigorous roots that helped the trees withstand the dry months that followed and the heat spikes of summer.
"We enjoyed a warm, dry spring, which will allow us to harvest up to a week earlier than the 2012 crop, and we are expecting good-quality, plentiful walnuts for our customers around the world," said Donald Norene, a Sutter County grower and chairman of the California Walnut Commission, in a news release Friday.
The average price per ton to growers hit a record $2,900 in 2011, when the harvest shrank amid growing demand, according to NASS. It has not yet reported last year's average price.
Walnuts, like the state's much larger almond crop, are harvested with machines that shake the trees, leaving nuts on the ground that are then handled by other machines.
Some of the walnuts go to market in the shell, notably to Europe, where cracking them is a Christmas tradition. The bulk of the crop is removed from the shell and sold in snack bags, in packages for home cooks and as ingredients in candy, baked goods, cereal and many other commercial products.
"Global demand for walnuts remains at an all-time high because consumer awareness of the versatility and nutritional benefits of walnuts continues to grow," said Dennis Balint, chief executive officer at the commission, in the release. "With over 100 published health research papers, people are increasingly aware of the many health benefits walnuts provide."
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LOTS OF NUTS
California walnut harvest (in tons)
2000 .... 239,000
2001 .... 305,000
2002 .... 282,000
2003 .... 326,000
2004 .... 325,000
2005 .... 355,000
2006 .... 346,000
2007 .... 328,000
2008 .... 436,000
2009 .... 437,000
2010 .... 504,000
2011 .... 461,000
2012 .... 497,000
2013* ... 495,000
Source: National Agricultural Statistics Service