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Big California tree nut crops finding home

California's three major tree nut crops - almonds, pistachios and walnuts - have bagged record or near-record crops over the past two seasons, yet, the crops are moving to market at respectable grower prices.

Chris Woolf, Huron, Calif., president of The Almond Board of California who farms with his family on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley, told the recent 19th annual Agribusiness Management Conference in Fresno that California makes up 99 percent of the North American production of walnuts, pistachios and walnuts.

The challenge with all three crops is to grow markets to absorb increased supplies not only from domestic production but foreign producers as well.

And, the three industries have so far been successful, he said.

The 2000 almond crop of an estimated 640 million pounds was supposed to be an off year. However, it was the fourth largest crop by volume in history.

Current bearing acreage is 457,000 acres with 90,000 non- bearing. Most of the acreage growth has come in the southern growing area. Kern and Fresno counties combined account for 28 percent of the total bearing acreage, but 45 percent of the non-bearing. This reflects the shift from more traditional row crops like cotton to almonds, which have for the most part provided "superior returns" during the 1990s.

This year's estimated yield is 1,280 pounds, 450 pounds off the 1999 average. Average prices to growers are in the $1.20 range this season.

"Almond growers have been fortunate so far with large crops finding a home," Woolf said. "The '99 record crop was followed up with record shipments. The challenge is to continue to grow the market to meet the increased production that cannot be stopped."

Promotional efforts touting the health benefits of almonds, said Woolf, "are already paying off."

Walnuts Walnuts also are having an off year with a current crop estimate of 245,000 tons that follows a record crop of 283,000 tons.

"What is most significant is that the carryover into this current year is 70,000 tons, a typical carryover amount," he said. "This means that a home was found for the big crop."

The lower price of $1.35 helped move the '99 crop. Current prices are closer to $2 per pound.

Acreage has leveled off at 191,000 acres, but production is expected to grow with the increased plantings of the higher yielding Chandler variety.

"Walnuts remain the No. 1 food ingredient nut in California, and California's ability to produce a consistent high quality supply cannot be matched by any other country," noted Woolf. "These strengths are being highlighted in industry efforts to increase consumption in the domestic and export market."

California exports about one-third of its walnuts and 75 percent of its almonds.

Pistachio This year's pistachio crop of 230 million pounds is a record; however, producers are receiving guaranteed $1.05 per pound, which is within the average price for the past decade.

There are about 74,000 bearing and 21,000 non-bearing acres in the state.

The big concern with pistachio producers is President Clinton's recent action lifting the ban on Iranian pistachios into the U.S. Currently Iranian pistachios are subject to a 283 percent anti-dumping tariff, the largest tariff in agriculture.

Commerce department officials are currently reviewing both the U.S. and Iranian pistachio industries to determine what role government subsidies play in production.

"If the Iranians are allowed into the market, domestic prices are expected to fall since Iran tends to undercut U.S. producers on the world market," said Woolf.

Pistachio industry leaders are positioning the nut as a healthy snack food. "Snack foods are a growth segment and pistachios are using their healthy message with positive results," Woolf said.

Pistachio growers also are considering a federal marketing order to create mandatory grading standards to differentiate and highlight the quality of California pistachios against any domestic competition.

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