Sutter County walnut grower Pete Jelavich started his harvest this year at the end of the first week of September. He began in his Serr and Vina blocks. He could have waited a few more days.
“They weren’t quite ready,” says Jelavich, who’s been growing walnuts near Yuba City, Calif., for more than 20 years. “Earlier this summer I thought the crop was about 10 days ahead of last year. But hotter and dryer than normal weather the last few weeks slowed development and the crop ended up being ready to harvest about a week earlier than in 2012.”
He’s planning to begin shaking his Howard trees the third week of September and his Chandlers the following week. Like the Serrs and Vinas, these later varieties are also maturing about a week sooner than last year.
Early results indicate his 2013 crop may not be quite as heavy as his previous one. Although fewer in number than last year, the nuts he’s seeing in the hoppers, particularly the Vinas, look to be larger than usual, he reports.
“A higher percentage seem to be first bloom, which tends to produce the bigger nuts, than second or third bloom,” Jelavich says. “However, with fewer nuts, overall crop tonnage looks to be down about 10 percent from a year ago.”
That’s in line with the 2013 California Walnut Objective Measurement Report, released Sept. 5 by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. This survey of orchards counted an average of 1,239 nuts per tree, 10 percent fewer than last year. That’s a record low since record keeping began in 1958. To counter that, growers now have more acres in production as well as more trees per acre.
This appears to be Jelavich’s second straight year of an usually light Serr crop. Instead of their normal yields of 1 to 2.5 tons per acre, he’s expecting less than a ton this year. He points to dry weather during bloom and Serrs’ high vulnerability to pistillate flower abortion (PFA) as the reasons. “Under dry conditions, pollen seems to spread more,” he says. “This leads to excessive pollinization, which causes the pistillate flowers to abort.”
Although too early to tell for sure, the quality of his walnuts looks to be normal, Jelavich notes. This year’s Objective Measurement Report shows percent of sound kernels in-shell, statewide, at 98.8 percent. That report also predicts California growers will harvest 495,000 tons of walnuts. That’s the same as the August estimate by walnut handlers.
Jelavich expects to finish his harvest in the last half of October. Before that, he plans to shake some of his blocks a second time. The nuts aren’t coming off the trees quite as easily as usual, due to this year’s warm, dry weather, he explains. Plus, the current walnut prices — about 20 to 30 cents a pound higher than a year ago — easily justifies the extra cost of a second shake, Jelavich adds.
Just before this year’s walnut harvest began, for examples, buyers were offering growers $1.80 a pound or more for in-shell Chandlers, Jelavich reports. That’s 30 cents higher than a year earlier. This reflects global demand for walnuts – now at an all-time high – and a lower than normal carryover of stock from last year, he says.
“Not a lot of walnuts were being sold in late August and early September, because there weren’t that many available to be sold,” explains Jelavich, a member of the Walnut Bargaining Association.
Walnut prices could drop as harvest progresses and supplies pick up. “Expectations are they could soften and settle at 10 cents per pound in-shell higher than last year’s prices,” Jelavich says. “The way the crop is shaping up, I wouldn’t expect prices to go below that.
“The market is strong enough that we can absorb a little softening in prices to keep our market sustainable for the long term. We don’t want prices so high that the crop doesn’t sell. We should be able to move this year’s crop at moderate price increases, since the crop isn’t big. We need to keep in mind that potential production in the coming years will increase dramatically. That leaves me wondering what this year’s crop size would be, if nut set had been average?”