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Almonds go nuts
Big harvest in tandem with strong prices
Manteca almond grower Richard Low prunes his orchard on Monday. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO
After making big investments in almonds in the past few years, California farmers are seeing their efforts pay off with predictions their recent harvest will be a record 1.65 billion pounds or more.

Growers in Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon had a drop in production in 2009 despite 47,800 bearing acres - up from 300 acres in 2008. That sent the overall value of almond meats from $175.2 million in 2008 to $134 million in 2009. The totals for 2010 - 15 percent higher than 2009 - fetched stronger prices thanks to robust demand and could set the stage for steady growth in coming years.

Almond hulls that are used in biomass energy plants were worth $11 million in 2009.

The big harvest comes amid strong worldwide demand and relatively high prices. Exports to China have increased eight times in the past five years, and India and Pakistan doubled their almond consumption in that time. Even with a record harvest, there’s no risk California, the world’s No. 1 almond producer, will saturate the market, industry experts said.

Manteca almond grower and packer Dave Phippen said he worried about flooding the market earlier on but he’s less concerned about it now. Farmers used to be afraid that 500 million pounds was too much, he said.

“Then in 2002, we hit 1 billion, and it was the best year I’ve ever had. I’ve seen two or three years with 1 billion and the price per pound has been quite substantial,” said Phippen, 60, a partner in Travaille and Phippen Inc. in Manteca. He exports 95 percent of his crop to China, Spain and Japan.

“I put a lot of faith in the Almond Board, and I have confidence we can produce these larger crops and sell it,” he said.

The Golden State has seen a big growth in almond orchards in the past five years as farmers shifted from less profitable vegetables to lucrative nuts. California now has 810,000 acres planted in almonds - a 25 percent increase from a decade ago - and produces 80 percent of the world’s supply. Spain is the second-biggest producer, but its harvest is only a fraction of California’s.

The state’s most recent crop appeared uncertain after cold wind and rain last spring partially disrupted pollination of the trees’ pink and white blooms. But recent forecasts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted a record crop with at least a 17 percent increase from the previous year.

“The nut crops in general are looking good in California,” said John Edstrom, who recently retired after 26 years as a Colusa County farm advisor. The market is generating “cautious optimism” among walnut, pistachio and pecan growers as well, he said.

California farmers began shifting to almonds when increases in fertilizer and other costs made it harder to make money on row crops, such as tomatoes and onions. When almond prices spiked to more than $2.80 per pound in 2006, growers leapt to plant 49,000 acres of new trees. After five years, those trees are now bearing significant fruit, contributing to the record 2010 harvest.

Improved agricultural techniques used by California’s 6,000 almond growers, such as planting trees closer together, cutting back on pruning and knocking hollow shells off trees during winter to control a debilitating pest called the navel orangeworm, also have helped boost production, said Bruce Lampinen, an almond specialist at the University of California, Davis.

Farmers said they are concerned about a loss of bees with major die-offs in recent years. UC Davis apiculturist Eric Mussen said bees are still available, though they are more expensive. The cost of renting them has doubled to $150 per acre over the past five years.

Water shortages also have been a concern for some, although Almond Board chairman Mike Mason said they haven’t been so bad as to affect the whole industry.

Almonds are now California’s biggest export crop, surpassing milk, cheese and wheat. Among U.S. specialty export crops, almonds also top the list, ahead of wine and apples, according to U.S. Department of Commerce.

One reason for that is demand in developing nations. Almond exports to China rose from 16 million to 133 million pounds over the past five years, and experts said potentially valuable African and South American markets remain untapped.

The Almond Board of California has been working hard to promote the nuts in fast-growing Asia. It hired Chinese movie star actress Gao Yuan Yuan to tout almonds for the Chinese New Year in its biggest marketing campaign in China to date. In India, actress Karisma Kapoor promoted almonds during the winter months, a traditional time for gift giving there.

“We have no mature markets or consumers who have reached a point even close” to eating as many almonds as they can, Almond Board CEO Richard Waycott said in an e-mail.