In February a worried James McFarlane stared at his young Nonpareil almond trees in full bloom and could see the trees behind them; typically not a sign of good yield potential in orchards.

“As an almond grower you don’t want to see the tree behind another tree during bloom,” said McFarlane, a third-generation almond grower and general manager, Redbanks Farming Inc., Clovis, Calif.

“My fertility person and I were crying in our beer a little, but it set a crop. I think it set every last flower we had. Sometimes you can make a decent crop with a less than average bloom.”

Despite early season concerns, McFarlane and other almond growers have grins pasted across their faces this fall as they deliver a record California almond crop estimated at 1.5 billion pounds by the National Agricultural Statistics Services. Industry leaders hint the estimate is fairly accurate. The 2008 crop is the third consecutive record crop. Prices to growers are slightly lower than last year.

California’s almond industry is a $1 billion-plus business. Almonds are California’s top food export and the sixth largest U.S. export.

Almond yields

Dave Baker, director, member services, Blue Diamond Growers, Sacramento, Calif., says almond yields in the far southern part of the almond belt increased 10 percent to 30 percent depending on the variety over yields last year. In central California, Nonpareil production was off about 5 percent or 6 percent from a year earlier while some pollinator varieties had slightly higher yields.

Production in the upper Sacramento Valley could fall about 15 percent this year as the result of severe weather that crippled orchards on Jan. 4. Heavy rain and wind gusts clocked up to 100 miles per hour killed about 8,000 acres of almond trees and damaged many others.

Back in January, Baker said, “Some of the orchards look like a war zone … It looks like a bomb went off in the orchard.”

A slight yield increase is reported in the lower Sacramento Valley this year, Baker says.

Mike Kelley, president and chief executive officer of the 462-member Central California Almond Growers Association (CCAGA), Kerman, Calif., says the cooperative could hull and shell a record 78.5 million pounds of meats, up 10 million pounds from last year.

“The almond crop has come off really well,” Kelley said. “Nonpareil was dry and has processed very well. Some other varieties had some rubbery hulls and sticktights; it’s been a real challenge to shell those out.” Sticktights are nuts where the kernel and hull dry down and are difficult to shake from the tree at harvest.

“The crop is exceeding everyone’s expectations in our area,” Kelley said. “While some people thought early on the Nonpareil yield would be lower, Nonpareil yields are about 16 percent higher from last year from about the same number of acres. Pollinator yields could be up about a similar amount.”

Almond production will likely meet or perhaps break the statewide 1.5 billion pound estimate, Kelley says. Last year’s total production was about 1.38 billion pounds.

McFarlane, CCAGA secretary, began nut harvest around Aug. 10. His crop is a “strong yielder, but not a record” with the potential of about 2,000 meat pounds/acre based on cart counts. The highest yielder for McFarlane is the Aldridge variety at 3,250 pounds/acre, followed by Nonpareil – about 2,500 pounds, and Butte – about 2,350 pounds.

“While 2,400 pounds of Nonpareil might not seem very spectacular to some growers, it reflects about 3,200 pounds per acre on our younger Nonpareil blocks and about 1,500 per acre on much older trees,” McFarlane said. “That’s pretty decent production on dinosaur trees.”

Almond quality

Baker judges the quality of this year’s crop as excellent. Every crop since 2002 has been excellent and this year’s crop could be the best of the lot. Reject numbers are very low.

Huller-sheller Kelley calls the quality “very superior” and has seen only spotty incidents of damage from navel orangeworm.

Bob Curtis, senior manager, production research, Almond Board of California, Modesto, Calif., says the average crop damage is about 1.15 percent.

“The damage is lower because people are executing important pest management principles for navel orangeworm control, orchard sanitation, early harvest, and spray applications in season as appropriate.”

Smaller nuts

Large almond crops generally mean a smaller nut size. “The only concern of growers was the number of small kernels,” Baker said. “I think growers in general are pleased with their yields, the crop quality, and how almond markets are in the fifteenth month in a row of record shipments.”

Kelley says some of the Nonpareil meats are fewer, but larger in size in the 21, 22, and 23 range, compared to 26 to 28 last year. Butte meats are smaller.

Almond prices

Almond prices to growers are averaging up to 10 percent less than last year. Nonpareils are trading in the $1.85 range with California varieties trading about $1.40 to $1.45, Kelley says.

Baker says prices for standard-sized kernels are ranging about 7 to 8 cents lower than last year. Smaller kernels are about 10 to 15 cents lower than last year’s $1.65 to $1.70 range.

Water needs

Water shortages forced some almond growers south of the Delta to face tough decisions this year. Some annual crops including cotton and tomatoes were fallowed to provide water to permanent crops including almonds. Curtis says water conservation and efficiencies including deficit irrigation principles helped the industry reach overall production projections.

McFarlane reported ample water supplies for his operation throughout the season. “We’re fortunate on the east side of the Valley and in our irrigation district that we didn’t suffer the fate a lot of growers have had on where to put their water.”

McFarlane receives water from the Fresno Irrigation District system. He has enough water this fall for crucial post harvest irrigation that’s essential to help set next year’s crop.

The big question facing California agriculture is rainfall and snowpack this winter, and the level of water restrictions for crop production next year.

Working smarter

The CCAGA this year fine-tuned a fully integrated huller/sheller computer software system launched in 2007. The software, developed by Regional IT, Berri, South Australia, is called ALMADS, Almond Management and Distribution System. The software helps increase management efficiencies to better support multi-plant and multi-site processing. CCAGA has four plants in Kerman and Sanger.

The software tracks raw almonds to the sites, keeps close tabs of the hulling and cracking process, creates related reports, and generates statements and invoices.

“It’s an excellent management tool,” Kelley said. “We’re able to keep a close eye on the hulling and selling process with the software, and immediately know about product quality at any given moment.”

Before the software, Kelley’s staff physically visited each plant to gain needed information to make decisions. Now 90 percent of the legwork is eliminated.

“The greatest part is we can track loads being processed in real time,” Kelley said.

For CCAGA members, the benefits include a multitude of information on the quality of the crop which can in turn help growers make immediate decisions in the field. If almonds coming into processing are too wet or have rubbery hulls, the grower is immediately contacted and the harvest can be slowed.

email: cblake@farmpress.com