Walnut grower Peter Jelavich, Yuba City, Calif., a member of the Walnut Bargaining Association, is comfortable with the USDA’s NASS California Field office Sept. 4 forecast of a 415,000-ton crop for this year.

“I believe it’s an accurate number and a good one for growers,” he says. “With the momentum of the last six months and the 60,000-ton or so carryover of the 2008 crop, which may even be a little low to meet immediate needs, the market should be able to move that amount in the coming year.”

The momentum he’s referring to is the rebound in walnut shipments and prices over the past five or six months. “During that time, we’ve had record movements, along with consistently-rising prices,” Jelavich says. “Right now, everyone is excited about buying early harvest walnuts.”

If that 415,000-ton crop is realized, it would be second in size only to last year’s record California production of 436,000 tons. This year’s production is also being bolstered by above-normal nut quality, he notes. Both reflect favorable growing conditions

“Walnut blight, which typically affects anywhere from about 5 percent to 25 percent of the crop, has been minimal the past two years,” Jelavich says. “Also, we’ve had little sunburn damage, which can affect as much as 20 percent of the crop sometimes. Last year, smoke from wildfires in the valley helped block the sun and this year’s cool June weather allowed the nuts to mature somewhat before the hot weather hit.”

He expects demand for the 2009 crop will exceed supply. Prices could increase 20 percent to 30 percent above last year’s levels, Jelavich says.

“Prices at the start of the 2008 harvest were high because of the strong market for the 2007 crop. Earlier this year, those prices readjusted because of the poor global economy and the withering away of walnut markets. Prices have since corrected themselves to the point where the opening prices for this year’s crop are reasonable. They’re likely to strengthen during the marketing season.”