California’s almond industry is pointed toward a third consecutive year for a record crop and its second 2-billion pound crop in a row.

For most California agricultural crops that would give pause about marketing; not so with California almonds. The almond industry is pleased with the prospect of meeting market demand, as growers work hard to get ready for the harvest and hoping to sustain prices in the $2 per pound range and shellers look to do their job more efficiently without building costly additions to their plants.

“It’s exceptional, remarkable,” said Frank Roque, general manager of Panoche Creek Packing in Kerman, Calif., one of largest independent almond packers in California. He was commenting on a report issued June 29 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that revised the forecast for this year’s crop upward to 2.1 billion meat pounds.

That’s up 5 percent from May’s subjective forecast and 3 percent above last year’s crop. The expected pounds per acre for 2012 are 2,690, compared with 2,670 for 2011.

“This number is about where buyers had in mind that the crop would be,” Roque said, adding, “We grew our business 13 percent last year and hope to grow it this year.”

The Kerman area is something of a mini capital for almonds in the state, and dimensions of the statewide drama of readying for next year’s crop are at play within just a few miles of the Kerman packer.

Don Cameron, general manager of Terra Nova Ranch Inc. headquartered in Helm, is readying his almond orchards that are just a few miles south of Panoche and near a hulling and shelling plant operated by the Central California Almond Growers Association.

Cameron was pleased with the boosted estimate: “The demand is there to use every bit of the crop, and the prices to farmers should remain at good levels. This is what the market needs. The prices should be $2 plus. It’s a good thing.”

Michael Kelley, president of the Central California Almond Growers Association, called the almond industry’s growth “a great story of sustainability for the state. It’s been about 5 percent every year (in recent years) and doesn’t seem to be bending. Almonds are the best value in the market.”

Kelley is a bit concerned about whether hullers in the state will be able to accommodate growth, particularly if it reaches what he said some Almond Board of California leaders are projecting 10 years down the line: a 3-billion pound crop.

Bullish on almonds

“There could be a real shortage of shelling capacity,” he said, pointing out that new shellers have major price tags because of stringent air pollution and food safety regulations. The cost to add one at the Kerman plant could amount to $12.5 million, he said.

Kelley said it is likely that sprinklers would be required in a new sheller. If those sprinklers were to trigger, he said, the damage to almonds and equipment could be extensive and could result in a shutdown lasting days.

Kelley is otherwise bullish on almonds as the cooperative that operates the plant approaches its 50th year with 395 grower members. He’s seeking to tweak the plant for greater efficiencies in moving nuts through it and has added covered storage room outside in the past year.

“With the large crop we had last year, the plant took quite a beating,” he said. “So there’s a lot of maintenance to be done.”

Kelley said cooler temperatures in late June are helping the nuts to size and also giving a boost to the hulls that encase them, a byproduct that that the association sells as feed to dairy operators.

Dairies use the hulls to provide carbohydrates to cows, and their costs have been driven up by rising costs in other feeds. Kelley said challenges to the global economy have some dairy operators struggling to pay costs for the feed.

The association has doubled its shelling capacity to 104 million pounds in seven years, and Kelley said – “in a really long season” – it could handle as much as 120 million pounds.

“Beyond that, we would have to build a new sheller,” he said.

For a time, the association was the largest sheller and huller of almonds in the world. But Kelley said he believes it was surpassed last year by Paramount Farms.

Demand for nuts to India and China are helping drive demand, Kelley said. But because those countries prefer nuts that are in their shells, the product takes up more space.

To reach a 3-billion pound crop, Kelley said, another 200,000 acres would be needed. The current bearing acreage is at 780,000.

In the field, growers like Cameron are preparing that acreage for a harvest that is expected to be earlier this year, possibly in the first or second week of August.

That means readying the ground for a time when the almonds will be shaken off the trees, removing weeds mechanically and with herbicides, treating for ants if necessary and smoothing the soil where the nuts will land.

“Next week we will be putting on hull split spray to protect against navel orangeworm,” Cameron said.

Panoche’s Roque has also been advising growers on spraying for mites as well hull split sprays. He expects the hull split to start around July 4.

Periodically, growers sample leaves from trees to determine nutrient needs. While that has been going on for years, it has gained new importance because of concerns about nitrates on farmland seeping into underground water.

Cameron is a member of the Canella Scientific Environmental Farming Committee that advises California Agricultural Secretary Karen Ross.

Nitrate focus

“Our focus has been nitrates,” Cameron said. He said almonds are “highly efficient” in nitrate usage, “and very little leaves the root zone.”

Firebaugh grower Chester Andrew said he and others have no desire to use more nitrogen than is needed. “Fertilizer is very expensive, and any way you can cut cost is good,” he said. “But I still want maximum production also. So we spoonfeed that along with calcium and potassium and micronutrients like zinc and iron.”

Both growers said they use micro or drip irrigation, which is growing increasingly common throughout the industry.

Andrew and others say this year was one of the best for pollination. The USDA said the bloom period was shorter than last year, but “excellent weather made up for the shorter overlap.”

The USDA and growers say the Nonpareil variety, which represents about 35 percent of California’s total production, is expected to off by about 7 percent.

Andrew said sales of almonds have been boosted by health claims. “It’s not just a snack nut,” he said. “It can be used to enhance flavor and because of its health qualities.”

Pat Ricchiuti, who heads P-R Farms in Clovis, said, “It seems like just yesterday that we passed the billion-pound mark.” In fact, it’s been 10 years since that mark was hit at a time when some in the industry questioned whether such high production could be sustained.

Ricchiuti is among those who gravitated to almonds in part because the harvest is mechanized, in sharp contrast to the labor demanded by tree fruit acreage that he left behind.