The words “Great Recession” are not in Mike Mason’s vocabulary.

After all, the word “opportunity” rolled off his tongue eight times during his keynote address as Almond Board of California (ABC) board chairman during the 2010 Almond Industry Conference in Modesto, Calif., in December. Mason plowed through a steady tabulation of 2010 ABC accomplishments.

Flying at 37,000 feet, Mason and Richard Waycott, ABC president and chief executive officer, peered over the results of an exciting year of good fortune for California almonds and the continued vital role of science-based research in the value of almonds.

The duo also set a celebratory tone commemorating the ABC’s 60thanniversary during the opening session speeches. The conference was attended by 2,200-plus almond growers, hullers and shellers, nurserymen, and other industry representatives.

Despite the almond industry’s good fortune, Mason, a partner in the almond handling company Supreme Almonds of California in Shafter, stays true to his roots, first and foremost, as a California almond grower.

“Over the years I have traveled across the U.S. and people from all walks of life ask me what I do for a living,” said Mason, a sixth-generation grower. “I’m always proud to say I am an almond grower. I usually hear them say, ‘I like almonds and almonds are good for you.’”

The California almond industry continues its unprecedented ride despite an earlier grower reservation.

“About 10 years ago a word in the industry brought great concern to almond growers – the word ‘billion’ (pounds of California almond production),” Mason said. “Now we can fast forward 10 years later and see how that billion-pound crop played out. If we had a billion-pound crop today, we would say that’s a disaster.”

The California almond industry achieved the billion-pound milestone during the 2002-2003 crop year. Production a decade earlier was 830 million pounds. Almost 1.5 billion pounds of California-grown almonds were shipped last year, but more importantly, says Mason, at a profitable price for growers.

The almond industry has performed well despite changing economic times. The industry has invested in forward thinking, Mason says, through plans developed years ago.

Not about to rest on its laurels, ABC leadership is focused on future opportunities, including increased relevancy and appeal for California almonds in the global marketplace. For the second year in a row, almonds were a favorite inclusion in new nut products globally.

Tremendous demand for California almonds

Regionally, tremendous demand continues for California almonds. North America, the largest single almond market, accounted for one-third of all shipments last year. Growth and development continues in the snack and ingredient markets.

In multiple consumer focus study groups, the almond was tapped as the No. 1 choice ingredient in competition against other ingredients in chocolate, cereal, and granola bar products. Almonds are the top-consumed nut on an ongoing basis.

In Europe, almonds are traditionally consumed as a food ingredient. The ABC plans to further promote the nut as a healthy snack.

“Through consumer research conducted in several European countries we have determined that almonds can be a great, satisfying, and nutritional food without the sugar,” Mason noted.

China is the second-largest and fastest-growing market for California almonds. China’s burgeoning middle class has a growing taste for many Western products: technology and goods, including almonds. China’s middle class could soon reach 300 million people; equal to the U.S. population.

“We have an opportunity to grow tremendously and make almonds the No. 1 tree nut among Chinese consumers,” Mason said. “Last year for the first time almonds were the No. 1 nut used in new products in Asia Pacific.”

Over the last four years, California almond shipments to China about tripled; from 46 million pounds in 2007 to 133 million pounds in 2009. Shipments in the first four months of 2010 totaled 102 million pounds.

India is the fourth-largest export market for California almonds. Indian people have a centuries-long tradition of giving almonds to children and pregnant women, plus gifting almonds during festive occasions.

“Three specific areas of potential for this (Indian) market include the increasingly modern retail outlet with more packaged and convenience foods; developing the food-processing sector; and changing consumer trends to increase almond demand.

Emerging global markets

Other global emerging markets for California almonds include Russia, Brazil, and Southeast Asia. The world needs more almonds, Mason proclaimed, as a source of a healthier diet worldwide.

“As obesity has become more prevalent around the world, consumers are looking for healthier snacks,” said Mason. “Almonds are a perfect solution to fill that need. Our goal, while lofty, is to obtain globally the same level of awareness and consumer knowledge as we currently enjoy in North America where 87 percent of consumers rate almonds as good or excellent in nutrition. That is staggering. That is our goal globally. We have our work cut out for us.”   

Waycott tossed laurels on the ABC’s 60th anniversary achievement, amid the conference theme “Growing Advantage – Leadership through Research.”

Waycott said, “We have discovered who we are as an industry, what we are as a product, what we signify to our consumers, and have established the defining role we must play in the dietary best practice of tomorrow. We have expended the time and efforts to be true to ourselves and have created an agricultural industry unlike any other.”

Research has shaped the almond industry over the six decades. “Research is knowledge and knowledge is power,” said Waycott. Research has provided the almond industry with a distinct growing advantage, “progressing from a good-to-great performance to innovate ahead of its competitors.”

Waycott became the ABC prexy in 2002. He has 25 years of food industry experience, including overseas with Cargill in Brazil and with food processing and consumer products industries in Venezuela.

Key to the ABC’s success is funding through the current 3-cent-per-pound grower assessment, which Waycott says has delivered significant advantages to the California almond industry.

“Whether you are a scientist at heart or don’t possess an investigative bone in your body, the foundation of research which you (growers) have funded over these many years with many millions of your hard-earned dollars is allowing this industry to create advantage every day; an advantage that will provide for our future,” Waycott said.

California almond growers produce 100 percent of the U.S. crop; supplying 100 percent of the domestic market, and 80 percent of the world almond market.

The Almond Board of California administers a grower-enacted U.S. federally-mandated marketing order under the supervision of the USDA.

cblake@farmpress.com