In terms of pounds of product produced, California’s 2013 walnut crop appears to have come up short of earlier projections – about 30,000 tons shy of the 495,000 tons predicted by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service in its Sept. 5 Walnut Objective Measurement Report and as estimated by a number of industry participants.
“That’s a little disappointing,” says Jack Mariani, a partner in Mariani Nut Co., Winters, Calif., and a member of the California Walnut Board.
He points to that same survey of orchards as one possible reason for the difference. It counted an average of 1,239 nuts per tree. That’s 10 percent fewer than in 2012 and the lowest since record keeping began in 1958.
Still, industry observers had expected that loss of production to be offset by a significant increase in acreage of young trees throughout the state’s walnut growing areas that come into production for the first time this year. “Apparently, they didn’t produce as the industry thought they would,” Mariani notes.
His company processes nuts from King’s County in the San Joaquin Valley to Tehama County at the north end of the Sacramento Valley. Among his growers, Vina production was down considerably from 2012. Hartley and Tulare production also was off quite a bit, Mariani reports.
However, the Chandler crop, the most widely-grown walnut variety in California, held up well. “For most growers, Chandler tonnage was close to last year’s levels,” Mariani says. “Howard also did well this year.”
With fewer nuts to support this season, the trees had more energy to put into this year’s crop. “Nut size has been excellent,” Mariani says. “We had lots of jumbos. In fact, the size of Hartley, one of the larger in-shell varieties, was up considerably from last year.”
Color of the early varieties, including Serr and Tulare, was excellent early in the harvest. Often, larger growers start picking these varieties as early as possible, to get a headstart on the harvest. Then, they come back a second time to pick those that weren’t ready earlier. “For whatever the reason, these two varieties can turn very dark, if picked later,” Mariani explains. “The kernels are still good and edible, but consumers don’t like the darker color. So, these nuts lose value in the market.”
Overall, in terms of color, soundness and low incidence of disease and insect damage, he rates the quality of the 2013 walnut crop as very good. “We had an early, easy harvest with no rainfall to speak of,” Mariani says. “Those kind of conditions really help maintain quality of the nuts.”
While this year’s smaller-than-expected crop is pushing walnut prices up into record territory, Mariani is keeping an eye on the large numbers of trees planted in the past few years. They’ll start producing a commercial crop in their fourth or fifth year. Three or four years later, they’ll be a full production.
“The California Walnut Board estimates that, within just the next five years, our industry will have the capacity to produce up to 650 thousand tons of walnuts a year. That’s a considerable increase over current levels.
To maintain prices in the face of that kind of production, California growers will have to develop new markets, Mariani says. India now offers just such an opportunity.
“This summer, India agreed to open its market to U.S walnuts for the first time,” he says. “That represents a very large outlet for our production, including the 2013 crop.”
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