Look for the wide variation between the prices growers receive for soft shell varieties, like Nonpariel, and hard shells, like Butte and Padre, to bring big changes in orchards later this year in Kern County, if not elsewhere in California.

“The price disparity between hard and soft shell almonds is way out of line,” says Vern Crawford, PCA with Wilbur-Ellis, Shafter, Calif.

“Growers of hard shell varieties are telling me that the first thing coming into their fields after harvest this year will be bulldozers,” he says “Unless their trees are producing 4,000 pounds per acre, they’ll be taking them out.

“Ten to 15 years ago, the thinking in the industry was to grow hard shells because you could harvest them without first having to spray for navel orangeworm. But, growers overplanted hard shells to the point where there are now way too many — now, the market wants soft shells.”

In fact, prices of 2008 crop hard shell varieties, with their smaller nuts, were historically low. At the same time, prices of Nonpareil Supreme grades and other large-size nut varieties continued to increase through this past spring.

In late July, for example, the difference in market value of these two types of almonds hit an all-time high. The wholesale price, Standard sheller run grade 36/40 Buttes, was about $1.15 per pound, while U.S. Extra #1 (20/22) Nonpareils were bringing around $2.40 per pound.

“If you’re not growing Nonpariel, you’re not making any money,” says a Sacramento Valley almond producer and processor. “Guys with a lot of debt to service are now in trouble, and many of them will be abandoning certain types of nuts.”

He attributes the higher prices for 2008 Nonpareils, in part, to production of fewer nuts, many of which were small and had to be sold as standards, which resulted in a bigger carryout of the smaller sizes.