What do you get when you add a low 2009 almond crop carryover to a two-week later than normal start of 2010 harvesting operations and rainy fall weather?
Answer: “One of the most challenging years in a long time for many California huller/shellers,” says Mike Kelley, president and chief executive officer of Central California Almond Growers Association.
His almond hulling and shelling cooperative, which has facilities at Sanger and Kerman, Calif., was the exception. “We were very fortunate this past year in the central San Joaquin Valley” he says. “For the most part we remained dry until the end of our nut receiving period. The storms went around us.”
About 95 percent of the almonds the cooperative received last fall were harvested under very good conditions, resulting in extremely high quality nuts — very large and uniform in size.
However, areas in the southern San Joaquin Valley and north of Modesto and into the Sacramento Valley had much more rain than in recent years, Kelley notes. “Many growers in those areas had no recourse but to harvest under wet conditions.”
Wet nuts, mud and twigs gum up operation of the hulling and shelling equipment, and also increase potential for damaging nuts in the process. Running wet nuts can slow operating efficiency by about 25 percent to 35 percent. On down the processing chain, wet product significantly affects industry handlers, who must then dry the product. That slows things even more.
“It’s been a real struggle for the industry, because there’s a limited amount of drying capacity in the state,” Kelley says. “Many shellers were still shelling into the last part of January.” His cooperative finished processing almonds in mid-December.
The late harvest, due to the cool, wet spring weather, compounded a problem for buyers created by the small carryover from the 2009 crop.
“Ideally, the industry would like a carryover of around 250 to 300 million pounds from the previous year,” he explains. “The 2009 carryover was marginally below those levels, and were exacerbated by the 2010 crop being late. It got really tight because we lost two weeks of shipping.”
As a result, he notes, buyers either had to substitute one variety of 2009 almonds for another, if suitable, or wait for their desired 2010 variety to become available.
“There was a lot of juggling by processors to provide product for their customers,” Kelley says.
Although originally estimated at 1.65 billion pounds, he expects the final figure will be just slightly lower, at around 1.6 billion pounds. Despite the big harvest, strong demand has pushed prices up. This past August Nonpareils were selling in the $1.95 to $2.05 per pound range. By mid-January of this year, those prices had climbed to $2.15 to $2.40 per pound, depending on size and quality.