California’s 6,000 almond growers are moving into high gear gathering the state’s fourth 1-billion-pound crop in the past five years.

And everyone is all smiles with harvest time prices of $2.45 cents per pound for Nonpareil and $1.90 for California varieties.

Between 70 million and 80 million pounds of this year’s crop will be hulled and shelled through one of the five hulling/shelling plants operated by Central California Almond Growers Association (CCAGA) in Kerman, Calif. and Sanger, California. CCCAGA is the largest huller/sheller in the world and will process $200 million worth of almonds by Thanksgiving.

The association is opening this season with a new state-of-the-art $9.5 million huller/sheller in Kerman to handle a large portion of the crop delivered by the association’s 453 members harvested from 50,000 acres or orchards in a service area stretching from Pixley, Calif. to Chowchilla, Calif. in the Central San Joaquin Valley.

California’s 2006 estimated 1.05 billion-pound meat pound crop is 11 percent above last year’s 915 million pound crop. It is not a record, but it is remarkable.

Madera, Calif. almond grower Don McKinney and chairman of the CCAGA board is surprised by the crop set in spite of low chilling hours resulting in a early bloom; a frost that hit some early varieties and wet cool conditions through the spring that inhibited bee pollination. The all-important Nonpareil variety representing about 40 percent of the state’s crop set well and looks good.

“Growers I have talked to are individually all over the board. Some say they are better off than last year. Others say yields are worse than last season. Overall, I think we have a pretty good crop,” said McKinney.

However, he believes some growers may be surprised at leaf footed bug damage this year. This pest surfaces about every 10 years in almonds and has been particularly troublesome the past two seasons, said McKinney.

“You can sort of tell how much damage you have had by the number of nuts on the ground. If you look there for damage this year, you are kidding yourself because probably 50 per cent of the damaged leaf footed bugs nuts are still stuck on the trees,” said McKinney.

When almonds stung by the leaf footed bug go to the sheller/huller, there is no marketable meat inside the shell.

“I don’t think it hurt the overall crop, but everyone has some damage. Some may be severe,” said McKinney.

CCGAGA president and CEO Mike Kelley has received a report from a Pixley area grower who estimates he has lost 70 percent of his crop to the insect that inflects its damage by puncturing the hull before it hardens. It often oozes a gummy residue from the hole, but not always.

Regardless of insect damage, McKinney believes the USDA/NASS office has a “very good handle” on acreage and therefore yield forecasting.

McKinney believes the surprising 1 billion pound crop in the wake of all the early problems is a combination of more young acreage producing above average yields and a good crop on some varieties.

California is the only state in the nation producing almonds and no other California crop has seen the meteoric rise in acreage, yield and prices like almonds over the past decade. While the unprecedented demand for almonds has many growers and handlers wealthy, it also has attracted thousands of new acres. This is making than a few growers and handlers nervous about the future when bearing acreage is expected to reach 750,000 acres, 200,000 more than is producing now.

This is McKinney’s 35th almond harvest. He says he has farmed through at least four almond production/price up and down cycles.

“There have always been those who were scared to death we could not sell 500 million pounds, then we’d never sell 750 million pounds and when we got to 1-billion pounds, everything would collapse. We have now sold virtually five straight 1 million pounds at record or near record prices for growers,” said McKinney.

Prices will eventually moderate from the stratospheric levels of the past two seasons, McKinney admits, but he does not see the sky falling. “The future does not scare me. This industry is in good shape with organizations like the Almond Board, Blue Diamond and strong independent handlers. The Almond Board has done a terrific job of creating demand. There are so many bright, energetic people in this business, I think the future is very positive,” he added.

Kelley points out that the market has grown at a steady annual rate of 5.4 percent since 1980.

“We need at least one billion pounds per year now just to meet market demands. As longs as Oprah keep talking about how good almonds are; as long as the heart association and doctors keeps talking about how healthy almonds are, demand will be there,” said McKinney.

e-mail: hcline@farmpress.com