It’s been an up and down ride for walnut handler GoldRiver Orchards, Inc. and its growers as they watch this year’s crop come in.
Based near the San Joaquin-Stanislaus County line east of Modesto, the family-owned company processes walnuts grown within about a 25-mile radius of its plant in Escalon. These walnuts include those from at a sister operation, Barton Ranch, near Oakdale. There, this year’s harvest began Sept. 10.
The 2013 Walnut Objective Measurement Survey, released Sept. 5, forecast California’s walnut production at 495,000 tons, less than 1 percent below the 497,000 tons produced in 2012.
This year’s harvest got off to a disappointing start when yields and quality of the earlier-maturing varieties fell short of expectations.
“Production of early varieties wasn’t just disappointing, it was even a bit alarming,” says Don Barton, GoldRiver Orchards’ managing partner. “Compared to last year, yields were off about 15 percent for Vinas, at least 20 percent for Paynes and more than 40 percent for Serrs.”
Then, things took a turn for better as crews began shaking the mid-season varieties. Yields of Tulare and Howard yields were in line with pre-season projections. Once the Hartley was in full swing, production in those blocks appeared to running ahead of last year.
However, in the second week of October, as crews advanced into the Chandler blocks, spirits began sagging again. Early yields of this variety, which accounts for about half of California’s total walnut production each year, were 15 percent to 20 percent below last year’s levels.
“If those yields hold throughout the remainder of the Chandler harvest, the ability of the industry to meet the Walnut Objective Measurement forecast is definitely in doubt,” Barton says. “We may very well end up, overall, with a short crop this year.
The market seems to be anticipating such an outcome.
The price for 2012 jumbo inshell Chandlers peaked early last December at $2.05 per pound FAS California ports. In early October, no more than six week into the harvest, the price for the identical size and variety of walnut had risen to $2.20 per pound.
The upward pressure is coming from several sources — China and Turkey where the demand for inshell walnuts continues strong; buyers in Europe, Japan and Korea, where walnut kernels are especially popular with consumers and a drop in walnut production in China. A smaller-than-expected U.S. crop could add to any rise in walnut prices.
Another positive market development this year’s crop is nut size. It’s up across all varieties, Barton says.
After starting harvest about two weeks earlier than last year, momentum of the Barton Ranch walnut crop slowed. Now, Barton expects most of the crop will be in the bins by the end of October, with the harvest finishing up, as last year, by about Nov. 10.