California almond growers are poised to cross the production finish line this year with a limb-breaking, record meat crop approaching the 2 billion pound mark.

The 2011 California Almond Objective Measurement Report, issued July 6 by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), predicts an all-time record 1.95 billion pound crop, a 19 percent yield increase over last year.

This year’s NASS projection is based on 750,000 bearing acres with 38 percent of the crop the Nonpareil variety.

Throughout the California almond belt, trees are loaded with nuts; smaller in size due to the heavy nut set. NASS pegs this year’s average nut set at 7,353 per tree; 23 percent higher than last year.

“Many of the almond trees on my farm look like mushrooms – they are definitely loaded,” said Chuck Nichols of Nichols Farms based in Hanford.  “I don’t think you could put any more nuts on the trees. There has been a fair amount of (limb) breakage.”

Nichols grows 650 acres of almonds in Kings and Tulare counties. His crop mix includes pistachios, corn, wheat, and blackeye beans. Pistachios are the principal crop.

“I haven’t seen a bad almond crop anywhere south of Merced,” Nichols said the last week in July. “All the trees, despite the age, look good. There’s good crop uniformity across the area.”

He estimates a 15 percent lighter nut weight on his farm this year tied to the heavy crop set.

Nichols removed his low density-planted orchards about five years ago which in a good year yielded about 2,000 pounds per acre. Newer high-density tree plantings are spaced 18 feet by 20 feet with about 110 trees per acre.

“I’m optimistic that the high density orchards will yield in the 3,000 pound to 4,000 pound per acre range this year,” Nichols said.

The plantings include the varieties Nonpareil (one-third), Butte, Fritz, and Monterey.

Cool and wet weather this spring followed by cooler summer temperatures will delay the almond harvest statewide. Nichols expects to begin shaking trees between Aug. 20-25; the ‘normal’ date is Aug. 10. Deliveries to the huller-sheller will likely start the first or second week in September.

Nichols believes NASS’ 1.95 billion pound statewide crop projection could be a little optimistic. He believes the final tally could be closer to 1.9 billion pounds.

Nichols serves on the Central California Almond Growers Association (CCAGA) Board of Directors; the world’s largest almond cooperative huller-sheller.

About 60 miles to the north, almond grower Denis Prosperi prepares to harvest a good crop with above average yields. Prosperi, a third-generation farmer in Madera (Madera County), pegs his yields in the 3,000 pound-plus per acre in younger orchards and 2,300 to 2,500 pounds per acre in older orchards.

Orchard age ranges up to 21 years old. Spacing in the newer plantings is 24 feet by 18 feet. Older plantings are spaced 22 feet by 24 feet.

Almond varieties include Nonpareil (50 percent) plus Carmel, Sonora, Wood Colony, Monterey, and Price.

“This year, the Nonpareil and Sonora varieties will yield the highest,” said Prosperi who began growing almonds in 1987.