Many in the industry were thinking that California’s 2010 walnut production would top out in the 480,000 to 490,000-ton range. Then, on January 25, the Walnut Marketing Board released its official figure on the crop’s size — 501,500 tons, almost 15 percent more than the 437,000 tons harvested in 2009 and a new record.
This latest figure is based on handler reports of 2010 walnuts received from growers through the end of December.
Last September the California Walnut Board forecast a 510,000-ton crop for 2010, based on the Walnut Objective Measurement Survey conducted in August.
The crop would probably have been even bigger had the nuts been larger, says grower Peter Jelavich, Yuba City, Calif., a board member of the Walnut Bargaining Association.
“We had a good crop set last year, but instead of producing inshell sizes that were 40 percent to 75 percent jumbo, the amount of jumbos in the 2010 crop was more like 30 percent to 60 percent.”
Despite this biggest-ever California crop, buyers have been willing to pay more for walnuts. Compared to a year ago, in-shell prices are currently 20 percent to 30 percent higher, while shelled walnuts are selling for 20 percent to 50 percent more, Jelavich reports.
He attributes much of this to strong demand by buyers in China and Hong Kong, who first entered the market just three years ago.
“Last year, at this point in the marketing year, these two markets had bought a combined total of 14,000 tons. This year, they’ve already purchased about 40,000 tons.”
All this in spite of the fact that China produces more walnuts thanthe United States.
Jelavich doesn’t expect the Chinese demand for California walnuts to abate much, if at all, any time soon. “If it says California Walnuts, Chinese consumers seem to want them. They love the quality of our walnuts — we have better varieties and the nuts are much more uniform in size and color.
The brisk pace of sales so far this season reflects a big demand worldwide for walnuts. He describes movement of the 2010 crop to date as “terrific” — this despite low shipments in September, due to a 10-day delay in the normal start of harvest.
In September, 2009, for example, handlers shipped 37,000 tons of walnuts; this year, total September shipments dropped to 20,000 tons. But, handlers more than made up that difference during October, November and December, when they shipped close to 40,000 tons more than the same period a year earlier.
“We’ve already sold about 54 percent of the crop — the same as we had at this stage last year, when the crop was smaller,” Jelavich says. “We’ll probably sell 95 percent or more of the 2010 crop before the next crop comes in. This, coupled with higher prices, bodes well for the industry. Growers should see significant price increases over last year.”