California almond growers are poised to cross the production finish line this year with a limb-breaking, record meat crop approaching the 2 billion pound mark.

The 2011 California Almond Objective Measurement Report, issued July 6 by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), predicts an all-time record 1.95 billion pound crop, a 19 percent yield increase over last year.

This year’s NASS projection is based on 750,000 bearing acres with 38 percent of the crop the Nonpareil variety.

Throughout the California almond belt, trees are loaded with nuts; smaller in size due to the heavy nut set. NASS pegs this year’s average nut set at 7,353 per tree; 23 percent higher than last year.

“Many of the almond trees on my farm look like mushrooms – they are definitely loaded,” said Chuck Nichols of Nichols Farms based in Hanford.  “I don’t think you could put any more nuts on the trees. There has been a fair amount of (limb) breakage.”

Nichols grows 650 acres of almonds in Kings and Tulare counties. His crop mix includes pistachios, corn, wheat, and blackeye beans. Pistachios are the principal crop.

“I haven’t seen a bad almond crop anywhere south of Merced,” Nichols said the last week in July. “All the trees, despite the age, look good. There’s good crop uniformity across the area.”

He estimates a 15 percent lighter nut weight on his farm this year tied to the heavy crop set.

Nichols removed his low density-planted orchards about five years ago which in a good year yielded about 2,000 pounds per acre. Newer high-density tree plantings are spaced 18 feet by 20 feet with about 110 trees per acre.

“I’m optimistic that the high density orchards will yield in the 3,000 pound to 4,000 pound per acre range this year,” Nichols said.

The plantings include the varieties Nonpareil (one-third), Butte, Fritz, and Monterey.

Cool and wet weather this spring followed by cooler summer temperatures will delay the almond harvest statewide. Nichols expects to begin shaking trees between Aug. 20-25; the ‘normal’ date is Aug. 10. Deliveries to the huller-sheller will likely start the first or second week in September.

Nichols believes NASS’ 1.95 billion pound statewide crop projection could be a little optimistic. He believes the final tally could be closer to 1.9 billion pounds.

Nichols serves on the Central California Almond Growers Association (CCAGA) Board of Directors; the world’s largest almond cooperative huller-sheller.

About 60 miles to the north, almond grower Denis Prosperi prepares to harvest a good crop with above average yields. Prosperi, a third-generation farmer in Madera (Madera County), pegs his yields in the 3,000 pound-plus per acre in younger orchards and 2,300 to 2,500 pounds per acre in older orchards.

Orchard age ranges up to 21 years old. Spacing in the newer plantings is 24 feet by 18 feet. Older plantings are spaced 22 feet by 24 feet.

Almond varieties include Nonpareil (50 percent) plus Carmel, Sonora, Wood Colony, Monterey, and Price.

“This year, the Nonpareil and Sonora varieties will yield the highest,” said Prosperi who began growing almonds in 1987.

Bullish prices

Prosperi, the CCAGA board chairman, farms 400 acres of almonds and 330 acres of wine grapes. Grape varieties include Chardonnay, Ruby Cabernet, Syrah, and a handful of others.  Prosperi also farms 200 acres in southern Australia; 80 acres of almonds and 120 acres of wine grapes.

“I think the nut size will be a little larger than usual given the large nut load,” Prosperi said.

Prosperi estimates nut sizes range from 22 to 26. Nuts are sized according to how many almond meats constitute an ounce of almonds. A size 22 nut means an ounce includes 22 nut meats.

He also faces a delayed harvest due to cool and wet spring weather. Prosperi hopes to complete harvest prior to the fall rainy season.

“My almond crop is about a week behind last year and about 10 days behind normal,” Prosperi said in late July. “If the (dry) weather holds this fall it really won’t matter.”

Prosperi expects to kickoff harvest around Aug. 25. Last year’s harvest began about nine days earlier.

Summer temperatures have also been slightly cooler. Lower temperatures throughout the growing season helped reduce mite pressure on the Prosperi and Nichols almond ranches.

Prosperi shells his crop through the farmer-owned CCAGA cooperative. The crop is marketed by Panoche Creek Packing in which he is a part owner.

On the statewide almond crop, Prosperi estimates production at about 1.92 billion pounds.

Mike Kelley, CCAGA president and chief executive officer, talks often with association members. He predicts the California crop will tally in the 1.85 to 1.90 billion pound range.

“It’s a very good crop,” said Kelley, based at the CCAGA headquarters in Kerman in Fresno County. “Last year we didn’t have high yields on the soft shell varieties Nonpareil and Sonora in our growing area. We are expecting higher volumes this year.”

Kelley says CCAGA member almond production could average 1,950 to 2,000 pounds per acre.

“A 2,000 pound per acre yield average would set a CCAGA record,” Kelley said.

A 2,000 pound per acre crop would total about 87 million pounds for the CCAGA. The largest crop produced by members is 81.2 million pounds.

Kelley says many association members have smaller operations and older orchards. The cooperative this year includes 368 active members representing 42,000 acres of production; mostly from Merced (Merced County) to Pixley (Tulare County). The non-profit group has sheller-huller facilities in Kerman and Sanger.

“This year there is a huge load on the tree and the nut size is smaller,” Kelley said. “From the shelling standpoint that’s a wonderful thing. Smaller-sized nuts shell out a lot easier.”

As California almond tree plantings continue to rapidly increase, the CCAGA this year expanded its stockpile yard in Kerman by 25 percent (35 acres) – a $50,000 investment - to accommodate future record crops.

Almond prices are always a bottom line issue for the California almond industry.  

“I’m very optimistic that prices will remain at respectable levels records for the remainder of the season,” Kelley said. “As the crop comes off, there could be some price strengthening.”

Nichols and Prosperi are bullish on almond prices due to continued strong consumer demand-related almond shipments.

Yet Nichols said pricing can be negatively impacted by external macroeconomic factors that have little to do with the supply of almonds, including a stronger U.S. dollar, a collapse in the value of the Euro currency, and government policy changes in China.

cblake@farmpress.com