Growers and buyers alike were shocked by the USDA-NASS objective estimate of this year’s California almond crop. Released July 1, it forecasts growers will produce 1.85 billion meat pounds of almonds this year, 7.5 percent smaller than the May subjective estimate and nearly 2 percent under last year’s 1.89 billion-pound crop.

Most were expecting a forecast of 2 billion to 2.1 billion meat pounds

“This year’s objective estimate is a shockingly low number,” says Paul Ewing, sales manager for almond processor Hilltop Ranch, Inc., Ballico, Calif.

Given current demand, a 1.85-billion-pound crop could produce record revenues for growers, he notes. It could also complicate efforts to satisfy the market.

Within 24 hours after release of the NASS objective estimate, prices for 2013 crop almonds jumped 30 cents per pound for small size Nonpareil to as much as 50 cents per pound for large California varieties. Prices for 2012 almonds also rose, just not as much.

“The big question now is what’s the correct price for rationing this year’s relatively small crop?” Ewing says. “That will affect sales overseas, including China, India and the Middle East, as well as the market here at home. The 2013 crop will make for a challenging marketing year.

“Almonds are still competitively priced with other nuts, however. Many sellers seem to think that 2013 almonds are priced correctly or maybe a little under. But, if almond prices increase significantly more, we’ll probably start seeing some substitution of other nuts for almonds.”

These short-supply-driven strong prices may be good for growers in the near term, he notes; a crop shortfall doesn’t benefit in the long run, Ewing notes. “At this time, we don’t have the supply needed to grow the industry,” he says.

This year’s subjective estimate was based on nut counts and measurements from 1,766 trees sampled in 883 orchards from May 22 to June 14. Production of Nonpareil, which accounts for 35 percent of California’s total almond production, is forecast at 650 million meat pounds, 4 percent below last year’s deliveries. 

The average nut set per tree for all varieties is 5 percent lower than 2012, while kernel size is the smallest in 40 years.

This latest NASS forecast reflects in part, the impact of continued hot and dry weather. It has increased the water demand of trees when many growers contending with significant reductions in surface water supplies. That has left some scrambling to buy additional water at high prices. Others unable to make up the loss of water have shorted their trees for water.

The 2013 subjective estimate also reflects lessons learned by the forecasters last year. “Because of the hot, dry conditions that developed last year, the NASS overestimated in predicting the size of the 2012 crop,” Ewing says. “So, they’ve adjusted their procedures to account for the continuing hot and dry weather this year. The agency has a very impressive history of accurately estimating crop size.”

California’s almond harvest is expected to begin in early August as growers start shaking fields of Nonpareil. The harvest will wind up when the last Monterey and Fritz varieties are delivered to processors.

This report is from Tree Nut Farm Press, a twice-monthly electronic newsletter published by Western Farm Press during the growing season. If you would like to receive Tree Nut Farm Press, see here for sign-up.