Pete Jelavich has been growing walnuts for more than 20 years and calls this year’s harvest one for the books.

“It’s been the most unusual harvest I’ve gone through,” says the Yuba City, Calif., producer. “The harvest started two weeks later than usual and the rains began two weeks earlier than normal.”

That doesn’t include problems earlier in the year caused by an unseasonably cool, wet spring, which disrupted tree bloom and nut set, and slowed crop development. “It’s been a challenging year in terms of both production and quality,” Jelavich says.

His mid-size walnut operation includes orchards in Sutter and Yuba counties. Normally, he starts harvesting his crop during the first week of September. This year Jelavich began on Sept. 20 with his earliest varieties — Serrs, Vinas and Tehamas. Then he moved on to his later-maturing Howards and Hartleys before finishing with Tulares and Chandlers. He harvested the last of his 2011 crop on Nov. 1. That was two days before another rain shower arrived.  “I’ve never finished this late before,” he says.

Rains in the first part of October led to a 10-day stretch when harvest operations bogged down. “Everyone wanted to pick the nuts, including the green ones, at the same time to beat any more rain,” Jelavich explains. “Normally, hullers can dry walnuts in about 15 to 20 hours. But this year, it was taking as long as 30 hours and more.” As a result, trucks were unable to unload their nuts. Until the processors could catch up, growers left their walnuts on the trees, biding their time as they waited for empty trailers to haul the nuts away.

The harvest also started and ran later than usual for Donald Norene, Rio Oso, Calif. He grows six varies of walnuts on 700 acres, also in Sutter and Yuba counties. This year, he began harvesting them on Sept. 15. That’s at least a week later than usual and three days later than last year’s start.

The delayed start prompted him and other growers to treat their trees with ethephon to shorten the harvest period. The plant growth regulator accelerates hull cracking and separation from the shell. This can advance walnut harvest by four to seven days. It can increase nut value by promoting lighter kernel color.

Rain effects

In fact, the quality of the nuts was very good until rain moved into the Sacramento Valley on Oct. 6. That storm, which dropped about two-thirds of an inch of rain on his orchards, was accompanied four days later by a second storm. All together, Norene recorded more than 2 inches of rain in less than week.

That rain delayed the fieldwork and added to drying time for the nuts. What’s more, the warm, humid conditions that followed lowered the quality and value of the crop.

“We ended up with a lot of walnuts on the ground,” Norene says. “That hurt the color of the nuts, especially the Chandlers. Normally, about 90 percent of our Chandlers have the desirable light color. This year we were down to about 65 percent to 75 percent lights. This wasn’t unique to my orchards or our neighbors. It was an issue this year throughout the industry.”

The muggy conditions after the rains also increased mold growth, particularly in his Hartleys. However, except for three orchards, where he was going through a second time to glean any nuts still on the trees, he had had pretty much wrapped up his harvest by the start of November. So had his neighbors.

By then, estimates Norene, who is chairman of the Walnut Bargaining Association, about 90 percent of California’s 2011 walnut crop had been harvested.

As the first week of November got underway, growers in Butte County were pushing hard to wrap up harvesting their walnut crop ahead of rain forecast for later in the week. Most of them didn’t start picking the nuts until mid-September. That’s at least three weeks later than usual, reports Joe Connell, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor.

In addition to creating some bottlenecks with harvesting and drying operations, the early October rain resulted in some darker nuts and more mold than growers would have liked, he notes. “But, after that, we had some great drying weather and growers were able to move along fairly well with the rest of the harvest,” Connell says. “Although it may not be quite as good as last year, most growers are looking at a fairly decent crop this year.”

Norene attributes the drop in walnut production that he and other growers experienced this year to the spring weather. “It was a little too cool and a little too damp for a little too long,” he says.

Rains at the beginning and end of June, when the weather is typically dry, didn’t help, either.

“Overall, our crop is down a touch from our three-year average,’ Norene says. “Our early varieties were off significantly. Our Vinas were the most disappointing. They were off about 35 percent. However, our Chandlers were down only about 5 percent to 10 percent.”

Lower production

The lower production in some of his varieties this year was expected, as the trees recovered from a strong performance the last several years, he says.

Norene’s most prolific varieties this season included Chico and Hartley, whose production dropped off last year. “However, I’ve heard reports that, statewide, Hartley production seems to be down a little from last year,” Norene notes.

His best-yielding variety this year was Howard. “It was up about 15 percent this year,” he adds. “Overall, Howard tonnage for the industry is up this year.”

Jelavich was disappointed by the size of his 2011 crop. Overall, production of his trees fell 20 percent to 25 percent below last year’s level.

Other walnut growers have also experienced a drop in production this year. In fact, California’s 2011 crop is projected to top out at around 485,000 tons, Jelavich notes. “That would be 3 percent under last year’s 502,000-ton crop. Since walnut acreage continues to increase, he attributes most of the drop in crop size this year to Mother Nature.

“The looks of the crop fooled me and everyone else who looked at the orchards this season,” he says. “It looked like the crop was similar in size to the last three years. But, when I started harvesting the first varieties, Serrs and Vinas, I thought ‘Boy! What did I do wrong?’ Once other growers started picking, their crops were short, too. So, I’ve concluded my smaller crop was due to the weather and nothing I did.”

As it was, production of Jelavich’s Serrs this year was down 40 percent from last year, while yields of his other early variety, Vina, fell by 30 percent. However, production of his later varieties declined no more than about 10 percent from his three-year average. “The early varieties were affected more by the spring rains, which resulted in more blanks and nutlets that didn’t develop,” he says.

Jelavich is also disappointed by the quality of the nuts. “They look either real good or just mediocre,” he says. “There’s not much in-between. Color and size both seem inferior to average.”

Market prices strengthened

Despite diminished yields and quality, market prices and spot market sales have strengthened this year. That follows the trend for last year’s crop, as strong demand continued to push prices higher throughout the marketing season. “The fact that this year’s prices opened on the high side indicates that the market is stabilizing at a higher level,” Jelavich says.

In a trend that started a few years ago, the spot market continues to pick up steam. Buyers, especially from Turkey and China, have been much more active this year in offering pre-harvest contracts for cash on delivery.

Norene sees bright prospects as the 2011 walnut crop is sold. “Depending on how the quality holds up, I’m very optimistic that we’ll see some of the highest prices ever,” he says.

Opening market prices for the 2011 crop were $1.65 to $1.75 per pound for in-shell Hartleys and Chandlers, Jelavich reports. Jelavich is a director of the Walnut Bargaining Association.

They have risen more than 10 cents since the first of September. Meanwhile, meat prices in early November were in the $4.20- to $4.30-per-pound range. That’s an increase of 30 to 40 cents per shelled pound, despite opening the 2011season a dollar higher than 2010.

“Last year was the third year in a row of a record size walnut crop and we sold the entire crop even as prices continued climbing,” Jelavich says. “As a result there was a pent-up demand for this year’s crop before the marketing season started. So, the prospects of selling all of our 2011 walnuts are excellent.”

Still, considering the market’s momentum, a larger 2011 crop would have been better for California’s growers than a smaller one, he says. For one thing, with more nuts to sell, growers would have made more money and expanded into new markets.

A bigger crop of walnuts this year also would have been better for the longer-term, he contends. “Some people may not get the walnuts this year, either because there won’t be enough or the price will be higher than they want to pay,” Jelavich says. “If we don’t continue to supply the growing market that we’ve built up over the last three years, buyers will find alternative products.”