In a nutshell, the 2007 California almond season now winding down included good growing weather, minimal disease and pest pressures, decent prices, good to superior quality nuts, and no reported almond thefts.
“It's a good almond crop. It may not surpass the (NASS) estimate (1.33 billion pounds), but it will still be an exceptionally good crop,” said Don McKinney, almond grower and president of the Kerman, Calif.-based Central California Almond Growers Association (CCAGA).
“Prices are relatively good considering the crop size. We don't see a big swing from $1 to $4 like what happened over the last few years. It's good for the industry to be stabilized. Supply and demand are in good harmony right now.”
The only downside to the 2007 crop, McKinney chuckled, was personally not having more almonds to sell. He has grown almonds for 38 years on 40 acres located 10 miles west of Madera.
As for pests, mite damage was heavy in almonds, McKinney said.
“Those growers who didn't do an exceptionally good job of controlling mites had some defoliation in their trees. It's not a huge problem as far as the tree itself goes, but it does stress trees through the summer months,” McKinney said.
June and July are when bud differentiation takes place — when the tree decides whether a bud will become a flower bud or a leaf bud, McKinney explained. A severe hit by mites can affect the bud set for next year. It's a relatively small problem in fairly isolated areas. Most growers control mites fairly well.
Almond trees in the prime of production yielded up to 3,500 pounds of meats per acre, according to Mike Kelley, CCAGA president and chief executive officer. Trees 20-years-plus in age yielded 800 to 1,500 pounds per acre.
“The Nonpareil price for a good large nut is about $2.30 per meat pound,” Kelley said in late September. “Smaller sizes are about $2 to $2.10. That's real respectable, but there are a lot of smaller sizes in the marketplace. California varieties are around $1.80.”
Kelley expected the association to handle close to 78 million pounds in 2007, compared to 74 million in 2006. He linked the increase to more association members and high production. The CCAGA is the largest almond huller/sheller in California with 462 members growing almonds on 50,000 acres from Merced to Pixley.
Blue Diamond perspective
Dave Baker, director, member relations for Sacramento, Calif.-based Blue Diamond Growers, said 2007 should be a profitable year for growers.
“Prices slumped from 2006, dropping prices on standard sheller run which is kind of a bench mark, an unsized graded poorer quality product, to levels as low as $1.60 to $1.65 in the spring of 2007. The price is now at the $1.80 level,” Baker said.
Smaller Nonpareils (with few available) are selling for 50 cents a pound higher than when crop marketing first began, Baker said. Other Nonpareil sizes are about 15 to 20 cents a pound higher.
Almond shipments are excellent. “Looking at the first month of shipments (August), we have set an all-time record again. Shipments for the 2007 to 2008 marketing year should exceed the record shipments established last year at 1.06 billion pounds, reaching levels close to 1.2 billion pounds,” Baker said.
As far as almond rejects, the 2007 crop is the cleanest since 2002, Baker said. New crop nuts are smaller and that's usually the case with larger crops. That's created a small problem since certain markets prefer larger-size kernels.
“There's just not enough large nuts in the crop to supply those markets this year. However, those buyers seem to migrate to the next available size.”
Nonpareils shook clean from the trees. The Nonpareil portion of the NASS estimate is accurate, Baker said. He wasn't sure on pollinator yields since harvest had just begun at press time.
Blue Diamond Growers has more than 3,000 growers, or about one-half of the growers in California.
In Stanislaus County, Roger Duncan, University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) farm advisor, called the county's 2007 crop excellent with high yields and for the most part fairly clean.
“Overall it's been an excellent year with very few problems with insects, mites, and disease. Water availability has not been a huge concern in Stanislaus County, although it has been a big issue in the southern San Joaquin Valley.” Damage from navel orangeworm and the leaf-footed plant bug was prevalent in the 2006 crop.
The county had good, high quality winter chilling hours. Almonds came out blooming strong in the spring with varieties blooming together.”
“Yields in 2007 are generally pretty high — there are many 3,500 and 4,000 pound per acre yields here,” Duncan said.
Kernel size tended to be smaller, but expected with the larger crop, he noted.
“Another potential reason for the smaller kernel size is we entered into the spring pretty dry due to below normal winter rainfall. The deep soil moisture in some orchards just wasn't there. More orchards than usual were a little more water stressed than in other years.”
Nut quality has been good, according to reports Duncan had heard.
The 2006 Nonpareil yield was lower in Stanislaus County compared to the southern part of the state. California varieties yielded well. In some Butte and Padre orchards, the set wasn't quite as high as hoped, Duncan said.
With the 2007 harvest about in the bag, pruning is the next major job for growers, plus the application of boron and potassium in some areas.
“In the northern end of the San Joaquin Valley, we tend to be low in boron on the east side. Many growers should consider applying a foliar boron spray while there are still active leaves on the trees. It's also the time to apply potassium.”
Sutter, Yuba counties
In Sutter and Yuba counties, almond production covers about 5,600 acres. Franz Niederholzer, UCCE farm advisor, said 2007 almond production is good with above average yields.
Typical production in the area falls in the 1,000 to 1,200 pounds per acre range since many trees are older. The county average could increase several hundred pounds per acre this season, Niederholzer said.
Butte and Padre variety yields were considerably higher with the best blocks yielding 1,900 to 2,000 nutmeats per acre.
Nut quality was reported lower in at least a few blocks due to navel orangeworm (NOW) damage.
“Some growers who didn't spray for navel orangeworm have 8 percent damage or more. That's significant,” Niederholzer said. “The industry doesn't like it due to the aflatoxin concern. Growers don't like it because it comes right out of their pocket, in addition to the aflatoxin issue.”
Kernel size in Sutter and Yuba counties was smaller than average, and Niederholzer attributed that to the weather.
“When spring weather is warm, the fruit's biological clock speeds up. Within 30 to 45 days after bloom, much of the fruit's final size potential is established. For the rest of the season, the individual cells simply expand and make the final crop.”
Ted DeJong at UC Davis has shown that warm weather in the first 30 days after bloom results in smaller peaches at harvest compared to peaches grown under cooler temperatures in those 30 days after bloom, Niederholzer said.
At the huller/sheller level, CCAGA's Kelley reported ideal conditions for processing 2007 almonds.
“Hulls are real dry. When the product hit the machinery, it just flew through. From a processing standpoint, it's been wonderful. From a production standpoint, it's been a very good year. From a quality standpoint, it's been a superior year,” Kelley said.
The CCAGA's almond output will run 8 percent to 10 percent under the group's original estimate, McKinney said.
“Kernel size this year was fairly erratic. Nonpareil nuts varied from 20 to 24 nuts per ounce to 30 to 34 nuts per ounce. We were originally forecasting near 85 million pounds for our association. Looks like we'll actually have 79 to 80 million.”
McKinney expressed his concern over NASS' 1.33 billion pound estimate.
“Frankly, I am a little disturbed about how much the forecast was off (too high).”
The USDA (NASS), the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and the Almond Board of California have been very good at predicting the exact tonnage over the last five years or so, McKinney said.
“I think we'll be coming up a little bit short this year and I'd be interested in hearing what their explanation for that is. I don't want to point fingers at anybody but a lot of money changes hands based on the estimate and it needs to be as accurate as possible.”
No thefts in 2007
While several major thefts of almonds occurred during the 2006 harvest period, Kelley, McKinney, Duncan, Baker, and Niederholzer were unaware of any thefts in 2007.
“Back when almond prices were $3.50 per pound it was pretty enticing, and the industry did lose a few. Maybe the price has come down enough that the thieves can make more money by stealing copper wire,” McKinney said.