Almonds, almonds, and more almonds is the best early prediction for the 2001 crop in California, pending a forecast due in May.

Total almond acreage in the state is 585,000 acres, and with 105,000 non-bearing acres coming into production in the next few years, crop size will continue to increase.

Although new acreage points to a larger production, effects of weather conditions, pollination, and chilling hours always figure in yields.

Chris Woolf, chairman of the Almond Board of California, is particularly watchful of the pollination outcome. “The six- to eight-week period when the bees are flying and the blossoms are out is the greatest single determinator of the crop size.”

Even with a large crop of more than 700 million pounds last year, and a record setting, 830-million-pound crop in 1999, sales have been up. “Over the last 12 months we've been able to find a home for all the almonds,” says the Huron grower and processor.

Record almond shipments were made throughout 2000. “It really didn't slow down very much,” Woolf says, and he doesn't expect a huge carry-in for 2001.

Shipments to China and India were three to five times what they were a year earlier, and these countries continue to be the largest new markets for the industry. Meanwhile, Woolf says, markets in Europe and North American have grown.

Joe Connell, Butte County farm advisor, says the almond marketing pipeline is basically empty and there won't be a large carry-over. That suggests the crop will move well with improved prices for growers, even with a large crop in 2001.

The danger in the industry, Connell warns, is if growers and handlers fear they'll be unable to sell their crop and accept a low offer from a buyer.

“I think that's a self-fulfilling prophecy if our almond handlers allow themselves to be manipulated by the buyers. Almond handlers should be paying a lot of attention to what they're willing to accept. If they stop and simply say, ‘No, our almonds are worth more than that,’ I think they'll see the buyers come around,” Connell says.

USDA purchases?

The almond industry sold approximately 10 million pounds of almonds to USDA for the School Lunch Program in 2000. It's too early to tell whether USDA will purchase more almonds for 2001, but Woolf says, “We're working on it.”

A new “Talking Almonds” ad campaign began in March. The ads run monthly in five national publications throughout the year and focus is on the nutritional elements of almonds: cholesterol-free, high vitamin E, and low monounsaturated fat. Recipes for using almonds are included.

A significant reduction in 1999 almond prices spurred a group of growers to form a collective bargaining association to negotiate with handlers to ensure a stable growers' price year to year.

Rick Cinquini, a Chico grower and bargaining association representative, has been working for the last year to get the organization off the ground.

Surveys sent to several growers showed on a per-grower basis 55 percent in favor of forming a bargaining association and 45 percent against. By acreage, support for the bargaining unit was 80 percent in favor and 20 percent against.

Support in the north verged on overwhelming, but it was a different story in the southern part of the state. “The farther south we went the less enthusiasm there was for it,” Cinquini says, adding, a spike in prices late in 2000 contributed to the mixed interest from growers.

Growers in the southern part of the state are more diversified and independent. According to Woolf, there is also a general feeling among growers that they don't want to give up their ability to make their own decisions in regards to selling their product.

“This is a little bit in tune with the market reserve for almonds as well. It seems to be a lot more popular up north than it does in the south. The almond board, a couple of years ago, took a survey of growers throughout the state.” The results indicated larger growers and growers in the southern part of the state were less inclined to support a market reserve.

Almond growers have over a hundred different processors to purchase their crop and numerous end users — from Hershey's to M&M Candies to the entire bakery industry. Compared to crops like figs or raisins that have a quarter of the number of processors, almonds may need more representation, Woolf says.

Ed McLaughlin, Durham grower, says adjustments have been made for the processors' part of the market. “Now we need something to stabilize the growers' end of the price range so that we can at least get a return on our investment. It's a free-fall out there.”

McLaughlin doesn't foresee the association getting off the ground soon. “It'll take a real disaster in the industry. And then, the sad part of it is, you don't have it in place and you're not ready, so you're gonna take a real beating for a year or two until you get it on its feet,” he says.

Currently the group has decided to take a wait-and-see approach for the 2001 season, and no further meetings have been scheduled.

But Cinquini is still optimistic the bargaining association can come together. “We'd like to see more of a unilateral ground swell — not just support from the north state,” he says.