June 30, 2014

USDA predicts record California almond crop

California almond growers will harvest a record 2.1 billion pounds this year, a federal agency projected Monday, further evidence that water is finding its way to this profitable crop.

California almond growers will harvest a record 2.1 billion pounds this year, a federal agency projected Monday, further evidence that water is finding its way to this profitable crop.

The estimate from the National Agricultural Statistics Service is up 5 percent from last year’s crop and 8 percent from the initial 2014 forecast on May 1. Should the figure hold up as the harvest plays out, it would top the record of 2.03 billion pounds in 2011.

And the nuts will have no trouble finding buyers around the world, said Dave Baker, director of member relations for Blue Diamond Growers. The Sacramento-based cooperative, which has processing plants in Salida and Turlock, has helped promote almonds as a healthy food.

“I believe we can handle it very easily,” Baker said. “We’re seeing about a 5 1/2 percent increase in overall consumption.”

California supplies about 80 percent of the world’s almonds, and the Northern San Joaquin Valley accounts for nearly a third of the state’s production. The nuts brought about $1.4 billion in gross income to the region’s growers in 2012, according to county crop reports.

The state’s severe drought has prompted some growers to rip out orchards or curtail production this year, but Monday’s report suggests that the industry overall is holding strong.

Growers have replaced some of the reduced river water supplies with increased well pumping, raising concern in some places about overdraft. They also might fallow annual crops to get more water to the trees, purchase water from other growers, and conserve the supplies with soil-moisture monitoring and other techniques.

“I kind of expected a little more impact from the drought,” said Bill McKinney, who grows almonds just north of Modesto. He is in the Modesto Irrigation District, which has cut deliveries to about 40 percent.

Almond prices have been strong for growers, about $3 per pound, and McKinney said he does not expect that to change with the higher 2014 crop estimate.

The agency, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, announced the figure at noon at the Modesto headquarters of the Almond Board of California. It was based on counts and measurements in a sampling of orchards up and down the Central Valley. The initial estimate, from a telephone survey of growers in April, was for 1.95 billion pounds.

The large crop results in part from a rise in almond acreage — about 860,000 acres this year, compared with 840,000 last year and 570,000 a decade ago. This year’s average yield per acre is projected at 2,440 pounds, second only to the 2,540 in 2011. The number of trees per acre also has risen.

Monday’s report said the winter was warmer than usual for the trees, which prefer chilly weather before the bloom, and rain was scarce for most of winter and spring. Pests and diseases are less of a problem than last year, the agency said.

Baker said hot weather such as this week’s could stress the orchards and brings a lower-than-projected crop.

“When you get into this kind of heat, the trees draw a lot of moisture, and there are areas of the state that have had less water than needed,” he said.

Steady almond supplies would help the industry meet the growing demand, most of it from food companies that use the nuts in cereal, candy, baked goods and other items.

The almond industry employs several thousand people at farms and processing plants in Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties. Other people work for companies that supply equipment, fertilizer, irrigation pipes, loans and other things needed to produce the crop.

Beeler Industries of Salida employs 30 people in the design and manufacture of machines used by almond, walnut and pistachio processors in California, South America and Australia. Minturn Hullers Cooperative of Chowchilla held an open house Friday to showcase its new, state-of-the-art almond huller and sheller designed and built by Beeler Industries.

President Mike Beeler said the drought is slowing expansion plans for some companies, but the nut business looks strong over the long term. “I think it’s really a global desire to eat healthier,” he said.

Beeler, founded in 1989, makes equipment for hulling, shelling, sorting, inspecting, dust control and other tasks involved in nut processing. Some is made entirely on the 30,000-square-foot site, some in cooperation with other companies.

Beeler employee Sonny Kinslow, who operates some of the machinery that makes equipment for nut processors, said he is glad to see almonds thriving.

“It’s very important for our Valley,” he said. “It keeps us all working.”

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