Large almond crop projected despite drought

05/01/2014 12:33 PM

05/02/2014 3:53 PM

California could produce its third-largest almond crop in history despite the severe drought this year, a federal agency reported Thursday.

The 1.95 billion-pound estimate, announced at the Modesto headquarters of the Almond Board of California, trails only the 2.03 billion pounds harvested in 2011 and the 2 billion last year.

The report suggests that growers are doing all they can to get water to the trees so they can keep supplying the booming demand for the nuts. This could mean increased well pumping, transfers of water from fallowed annual crops, and careful management at irrigation time.

“Farmers are very resourceful people, and they are very good at finding water,” said Dave Long, president of Hilltop Ranch Inc., an almond grower and processor near Ballico.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service, as usual, announced the estimate at the stroke of noon at the Almond Board offices atop the DoubleTree Hotel. The figure is eagerly awaited by sellers and buyers because of its potential effect on prices.

Long said they have been strong for the 2013 crop, which is still being marketed: The favored Nonpariel variety is bringing about $3.50 per pound to growers, and others are about $2.90. Prices were roughly half that five years ago.

Thursday’s projection was based on an April telephone survey of growers representing 29 percent of the acreage, who reported on their crops’ development and water outlook. A second and final estimate, based on nut counts and measurements in a sampling of orchards, will be announced June 30. The Almond Board pays for both surveys by NASS, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Some areas, such as the Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts, have not suffered much from the drought. The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts are supplying about half their usual water but are letting farmers transfer it among themselves. The Merced Irrigation District, with a much smaller supply, also is allowing transfers.

Richard Waycott, the Almond Board’s president and chief executive officer, said growers also are stretching the water by means such as drip irrigation and testing of soil moisture before watering. He also noted increased production per acre over the long term thanks to breeding and grower practices.

“Given the drought scenario we were dealing with and the prospect of perhaps having a reduced crop, this crop size is comforting to the world market,” Waycott said.

California supplies about 80 percent of the world’s almonds, and they are the state’s No. 1 farm export. Most of the nuts go to makers of cereal, candy, baked goods, yogurt and other products. The industry also markets snack nuts to consumers, promoting them as a source of “good” fat that can help ward off cancer, heart disease and other ills.

Almonds brought about $1.4 billion in gross income to growers in Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties in 2012, according to their agricultural commissioners. Several thousand people work in processing plants and for companies that supply farmers with fuel, chemicals, pollination, and other goods and services.

The processors range from the giant Blue Diamond Growers of Sacramento, which has plants in Salida and Turlock, to smaller players such as California Gold Almonds. The latter recently moved into a new site on Tenaya Drive, near Modesto Airport, and employs about 30 people in slicing, dicing, roasting and other tasks.

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