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Even after winds knock almonds from trees, growers expect a record crop

Wind gusts up to almost 80 miles per hour in mid-April wind storms whipped through California's 600,000 acres of heavily-laden almond trees like weeping willows in a hurricane.

Orchard floors were littered with almonds after the series of storms blew through the state within a week. Trees were toppled in sustained winds of 40 miles per hour and gusts much higher, especially older trees, and orchards both young and old that were in wet soil.

High winds threshed limbs of corn rows and grape-like clusters of almonds that would have been worth $2 per pound or more at harvest.

Still, almond growers, consultants, UC farm advisors, hullers, and marketers say even after the winds that were more like West Texas than serene California, a record crop remains on the state's bearing orchards.

Rick Kindle, vice president of marketing and operations at Gold Hills Nut Company, Balico, Calif., says this year's crop is shaping up to be “The Mother of All Almond Crops,” and he and others in the industry couldn't be happier.

Kindle isn't alone in estimating a crop of at least 1.2 billion pounds, and may be 1.3 billion. The higher figure received more votes from those contacted by Western Farm Press.

This range represents 100 million to 200 million pounds more than the previous record crop in 2002. It will be the fifth 1 billion pound crop in the past six years and should keep almonds in the number 4 spot of California's most important agricultural segments, behind dairies, grapes, and nursery crops.

“We need this big 2007 crop to get consumption up so we can market 1.5 billion pounds of almonds,” says Kindle. The extra pounds will come from at least 100,000 acres of non-bearing trees expected to reach full production within five to 10 years. And new almond trees are still going in the ground.

The almond-littered orchard floors look much worse than in reality. The crop is so big the trees likely would have shed many of the nuts during the traditional May/June drop when the trees decide how many almonds they can hold until harvest.

The first USDA/NASS crop estimate is due out May 9 and likely won't factor in the wind losses, which seem to average about 100 pounds per acre. It likely will be a big number.

California/pollinator varieties are loaded this season, while the Nonpareil crop is lighter. Experts says this is partly due to last season's big Nonpareil crop and less than ideal pollination weather this spring when that variety was blooming.

Some are predicting with the overall warm spring and rapid advancement of the crop that harvest could be earlier this year, perhaps starting in late July rather than the typical early August. Others are saying the crop will be harvested in the normal time frame because it will take time for the trees to mature the huge crop.

Insect damage has been light, although mites have been a problem in some areas — to be expected from all the dust kicked up by the winds.

Growers are on high alert for leaf-footed plant bug, which caused significant damage last year. So far, none have been found. Overall, disease problems have also been minimal.

Nonpareil continues to be the leading variety in the state, followed by Carmel and Butte. Kern, Merced, Stanislaus, and Fresno are the leading almond-producing counties, representing about 63 percent of state's total crop.

Here are observations from around the state:

Dave Loquaci, Madera, Calif. producer: “The wind blew so strong it knocked large nuts to the ground so hard they made indentions in the mud. The immature nuts obviously were knocked off like the typical June drop, but a lot of large nuts also came off. I also lost some trees.”

“Montereys are absolutely loaded — some of the nut clusters look like grape clusters. They're so heavy I wouldn't be surprised to see nuts fall off from crowding as the crop grows.”A major marketer came out in early April with a 1.37 billion pound crop estimate. “In traveling the state, I believe there is a 1.3 billion pound crop there.”

Frank Roque, Panoche Creek Packing, Fresno, Calif.: “We're building a new huller on Highway 33 and Interstate 5 on the West Side of the valley in Fresno County. A wind meter there recorded a gust of 79 miles per hour during one of the storms.

“The wind damage will impact the final crop size, but it's still too early to tell how much impact it will have. The winds were so strong, some nuts knocked to the ground were still attached to twigs, an indication of limb breakage as well as nuts being knocked off. The wind damage was more extensive than in past windy years.

“I pretty much believe the crop size is 1.3 billion pounds. Orchards across the state look good. Nonpareils are in a lower-producing, alternate bearing cycle this year, but California varieties will take up the slack.

“Mite pressure came on early with the wind and dust and early high heat units.

“The spot price of almonds dropped 20 cents a pound immediately after a1.37-billion-pound crop estimate came out from one of the major buyers.”

Nevertheless, spot prices are in the $1.50 to $1.60 range for California varieties and $1.95 to $2 for Nonpareil. The average price for the '05 crop was a little more than $3 per pound to growers. For 2004, it was $2.21. Final price for the 2006 crop is not in yet, but it should be $2 or more.

“The dollar is growing weaker in Europe and that should be a marketing advantage.”

Brent Holtz, University of California, Madera County Farm Advisor: “I've seen leaves and branches and nuts taken off by the wind. We had a good bloom and excellent set this year, and the typical May/June drop would have taken off a lot of the nuts shed by the wind.

“Mites have already begun to show up since the warm weather is so early this year.

“The cold winter would lead one to believe there wouldn't be leaf-footed plant bugs like we saw last season; whether that holds true or not, we'll have to wait and see.

“But as a grower, I would not be complacent and not look for the leaf-footed plant bug this year.”

Eli Akel, independent consultant, Clovis, Calif.: “On average, the first three storms probably dropped 100 pounds of nuts per acre.

“I think the loss may have been heavier on Nonpareil because they're more willow-like trees and the wind really whipped the branches around.

“People on heavier ground lost trees — the roots wouldn't support the trunk and the heavy crop, so the trees went over in the wind.

“Overall, it's an exceptionally good crop. Montereys seem to do well year after year; nut size is large this year.

“I haven't sprayed for mites — beneficials seem to be taking care of them. When the weather cooled after the warm weather, the beneficials did a good job.

“I found early instars of leaf-footed plant bugs in grass in sloughs. I was told by a UC entomologist that the instars I found would likely not mature enough to move into almonds. Also, without a wet spring, there is not much natural habitat grass for the leaf-footed plant bug.”

Roger Duncan, UC Farm Advisor, Stanislaus County: “Overall, the crop is very good. The Nonpareil (Np) crop is good — better than last year. I didn't think the Nonpareil crop was exceptional at all last year in our area.

“Many Butte and Padre orchards are lighter than expected this year. Based on the number of growing degree hours, the amount of time between bloom and harvest will be shorter than average. But bloom was fairly late, so I don't know that harvest will really be all that early. We'll see.

“Insect and disease issues have been very minimal. Mites are never an issue this early in the season. Everyone is looking for leaf-footed plant bug, but almost nothing has been found.

Mark Freeman, UC Farm Advisor, Fresno County: “Many Nonpareil trees in our county this year have a lighter crop versus a heavy crop last year. Many of the other varieties look to have a good or better crop.

“Winds blew some of the larger nuts onto the ground, but we had a much heavier drop last year from the leaf-footed plant bug. Most of the nuts on the ground now were the smaller nuts on the tree. There are about 350-400 almond kernels per pound, so a few dropped nuts may not decrease yields too much. But we still have the June drop ahead of us.

“There have been some reports of spider or web-spinning mites going up the tree trunks earlier this year.”

Paul Verdegaal, UC Farm Advisor, San Joaquin County: “The Nonpareil crop is good, slightly better than last year locally. Late varieties were rained on, but still had a good set, though maybe not as much as last year.

“The winds did some severe thinning, but mostly it was nuts that were small or maybe would abort later. This could have a possible positive effect on nut quality at harvest. Nut size should compensate for some of the good nut loss. There weren't many blow-overs, but there was significant limb and scaffold breakage in some varieties and orchards.

“The bloom start date was average. Current development appears normal and weather is predicted cool for next few weeks. I don't anticipate an abnormally early harvest start.

“There are noo obvious insect problems yet. Last year, leaf-footed bug was more of a problem south of San Joaquin County.

“Disease pressure has been very light this year. Orchards have dried quickly after recent rains and that helps control diseases. Deep soil moisture is fair, but below average, and growers may need to be wary of any extreme heat spells. I have seen fairly severe symptoms of bud failure (crazy top) from the excessive heat last year in July that affected bud development for this year.”

Michael Kelley, president, Central Valley Almond Growers Association, Sanger and Kerman: “With a big crop load, the wind knocked over a lot of trees, especially on the east side of the valley where we have many members with older orchards. Tree loss due to wind was much heavier than normal this year.

“I'd agree that 100 pounds of nuts per acre is a good loss estimate per tree, but when you have an orchard capable of 2,400 pounds per acre, the percentage loss isn't that significant.

“At our board meeting in mid-April, my growers said they expect the crop to average around 1,750 pounds per acre. Last year, the average for our members was 1,531 pounds. The record is 1,883, so we're somewhere in the middle for 2007.

“Last year was a banner year for Nonpareil; this year they have a lighter crop. The pollinator varieties are loaded. The May/June drop potential is big, but I would lean toward the 1.3 billion pound statewide crop estimate.

“Growers are more watchful for the leaf-footed plant bug after last year. We also had a lot of Navel orangeworm damage last year.

“The opportunity is there for an early harvest. We expect to start about the first week of August, with a few loads coming in the last part of July.”

With the crop certain to be big, what about price?: Rick Kindle, at Gold Hills Nut Company, says buyers are being careful and will contract new crop in limited amounts. However, most buyers will wait until they're confident of the crop; that may take until May or June.

Even though last year's crop was another 1-billion pounder, January crop year-to-date shipments increased 27 percent versus the same time period last year, achieving record-breaking numbers for domestic and export markets.

Domestic shipments are up 23 percent overall, with record monthly shipments in each of the last five months. Export shipments were up 29 percent from last year. The top five export markets this crop year are Germany, Spain, India, Japan and China, representing 50 percent of all California almond exports.

Douglas D. Youngdahl, president of Blue Diamond Growers, expects by August, when the old crop season ends, that 2006-07 shipments will be about 1.05-billion pounds. Ten years ago, shipments of half that amount were customary.

“At that time, the idea of selling a billion pound crop was unthinkable,” he says.

Youngdahl is one who believes demand is driven by increased consumption, not lower prices.

He says the 2006 crop year demonstrated that almonds trading at price levels between $2 and $3 per pound encourage new product development and increased consumption — while providing sustainable returns to growers.

“This is a win-win situation that is truly unique in agriculture. “Given the successful track record of the past several years, we'd welcome another record crop this season.”

He said world markets are “primed and ready to accept the additional supply.”

In the United States, per capita annual almond consumption is more than 1 pound. In Western Europe it's nearly the same.

“With billions of people in other regions of the world increasing their consumption of almonds, we see a bright future for the industry,” Youngdahl says. “Anticipating anything less runs against the rising tide of success we've seen over the past several years.”

However, the president of the largest almond marketer in the state isn't advocating “unbridled” new plantings.

“Many of those plantings may already be in the ground. While growers must make their own assessment of when to plant and determine the associated economic risk, it should be understood by all that the industry needs to manage the sale of larger supplies through rigorous marketing, not low prices.”

It costs about $2,000 per acre to grow almonds, including harvest.

Prices have been well in the $2 to $3 range for several seasons. With a state average yield of about 1,600 pounds, almonds clearly are very profitable.

Many of the newer, closer-spaced orchards in the state can easily produce 2,500 to 3,500 pounds per acre, making almonds one of the most profitable crops in the state.

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