Assuming weather continues to cooperate through harvest, California walnut growers could be bringing in a good crop — to say the least.
“I hesitate to call it excellent in size,” says Pete Jelavich, who’s been growing walnuts near Yuba City, Calif., for more than two decades. “I thought we had a good size crop last year, but it came up short of expectations, especially for some varieties. So, I’m a little cautious.”
In fact, the state’s 2011 walnut production totaled about 460,000 tons — 8 percent below the record 502,000 tons harvested the previous year.
Nevertheless, Jelavich, a member of the Walnut Bargaining Association, is venturing a prediction about the size of this year’s crop: “I see the potential for a record-breaker. I’m fairly confident it will be more than the 2010 level — my guess would be around 520,000 tons.”
He bases this on good weather at bloom, which usually sets the stage for a good or better season of production.
“Keep in mind,” Jelavich says: “Even though we started with what appeared to be a decent crop, it won’t get any bigger from here on out.”
Sunburn could reduce yields; so could walnut blight. Rain is a big factor in spreading the bacterial-caused disease, which is more severe in early-leafing varieties and more prevalent in northern California.
“We’re seeing some mid- to late-season blight showing up in a lot of varieties and it’s causing some nut drop,” Jelavich says. “That’s not unusual, but it seems to be greater this year than normal. We’ve also seen scattered blight in Chandlers, our predominate variety. That’s uncommon, since they are less susceptible, and bloom later than most other varieties.
“This tells me that the three or four mid-season rains we’ve had in northern California have increased disease pressure. Also, effectiveness of the sprays may have been reduced due to resistance or improper timing of some applications.”
Along with his expectations of a big crop this year, he looks for walnut prices to come down from last year’s record highs. “But, although lower, they still should be good to excellent,” Jelavich says.
Last year, as harvest got under way in early September, the market price of inshell Chandlers was around $1.75 a pound. Shortly thereafter, they rose another 20 cents per pound.
“I suspect prices this fall will be lower, and won’t rise as much or as quickly as they did last year,” he says.
Lower prices, combined with higher production, should leave the industry better off than last year. This will better satisfy the worldwide demand for walnuts, which continues to grow, and promote more normal movement of product.
Even with lower prices, grower profits shouldn’t suffer, Jelavich says. Last year, for example, production of several walnut varieties was off. In his case, some yields were 25 percent below normal.
“I expect my production will be significantly higher this season,” he says. “So, I’m looking forward to a better year. If thr growers who enjoyed the usual production last year and the high prices have a good crop this year, they should be even happier.”
Currently, he’s is looking to start his harvest prior to mid September — a few days earlier than in 2011, but still later than normal.
The long-term prospects for California’s walnut industry remain promising, he says, noting the increase in planted acreage over the last few years. In 2009, California’s walnut orchards totaled 255,000 acres; of that, 227,000 acres were bearing and 28,000 non-bearing. By this year, total acreage had increased to 280,000 acres — an 8 percent increase in bearing acreage to 245,000 acres, and a 25 percent rise in nonbearing acreage to 35,000 acres.
“That show’s there are a lot of new trees to foster future growth of demand forour product,” Jelavich says. “There are still parts of the world where many people haven’t had access to California walnuts. They represent a lot of potential new customers for us.”