“Our almond crops just keep getting better and better,” says Michael Kelley, president and CEO of the Central California Almond Growers Association. “That was certainly the case last year. The 2011 crop was phenomenal. It looks like we’re on track to hitting the 2-billion-pound production number that the industry has been talking about.”

That view is based on the record-setting volume of nuts passing through the association’s shelling facilities at Kerman and Sanger, Calif., this past fall.

The final figure for California won’t be known until the current almond marketing year ends. But, a crop of this size would surpass the record 1.62 billion-pound crop which growers produced in 2010.

It’s definitely the largest volume of almond meats the association’s members have produced in a single year. The world’s largest cooperative huller/sheller, the CCAGA represents growers from near Bakersfield in Kern County in the south to the Chico area of Tehama County in the north.

“The 2011 crop will be our biggest by a vast margin on basically the same acreage,” Kelley says.

The association shelled about 104 million pounds of almonds this season, he reports. That’s up 28 percent from its previous all-time high of 81.2 million pounds processed in 2008 and 32 percent higher than in 2010. That year, member growers produced 78,200,000 meat pounds — their second largest crop up to that point.

“Overall, yields for our members were very good, averaging just over 2,400 pounds per acre,” Kelley says. “However, on the West Side, where yields typically are higher, some growers harvested upwards of 4,000 pounds of almonds per acre.” He attributes the huge 2011 almond crop to an ideal growing season of mostly moderate temperatures and low insect and disease pressures, as well as improved rootstock, which growers have been planting in recent years.

“Growers have been fairly profitable in the past few years and they’re replacing trees at the end of their productive life with all-new rootstock that’s much more productive.”

The 2011 crop features more than just high production. “From a quality standpoint, this is one of the better crops I’ve seen,” says Kelley, now in his eighth season with the association. Most of the nuts were brought in very dry so they shelled quite nicely.”

Prices remain respectable

Although prices for the 2011 almonds have slipped some lately from levels earlier this marketing year, they remain respectable. Depending on size, Nonpareil, the industry standard, has been trading in the $1.90 - $2.40-per-pound range, Kelley notes. However, as usual with a large crop, finding large count sizes in this crop that fetch a premium is proving challenging. Meanwhile, prices for California varieties have held their own, selling from about $1.50 a pound to $1.60.

“To come off a crop as large as this one and still have prices at these levels is really fantastic,” Kelley says. “It reflects the record volume of shipments that are going out.” In fact, he notes, the industry broke shipping records for each of the first four months of the 2011 marketing year. The California Almond Board’s shipments during that period totaled 710.3 million pounds, an 11.1-percent increase over the same period in 2010.

“October was the first time the industry shipped more than 200 million pounds of almonds in a single month, and we did it again in November,” Kelley says. “Although these levels suggest that quality could be limited when we get into the summer months, selling all of the 2011 crop shouldn’t be a problem.”

However, adequate supplies of water to grow the 2012 crop could be. “Up until the rain in mid-January, we’ve been on track to having the driest year in the San Joaquin Valley since the mid-1920s,” Kelley says. “That’s spooky. There’s a lot of new wood on the trees this season and that bodes well for a good nut set. But, right now, I think the biggest thing on growers’ minds is the lack of rain so far this winter.”