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Sales to Asia important as billion-pound crops forecast

Almond industry looks to China Computers, cholesterol, and China all figure prominently in the progress of the Almond Board of California, according to Rodger Wasson, president of the federal marketing order.

At the recent 28th annual conference of the ABC in Modesto, Wasson said computers are important because the board was one of the first organizations to get on the Web.

Cholesterol has been important because research on it was allowed under lawsuits that once prohibited the board from advertising. Eating a handful of almonds a day to help reduce cholesterol is now a primary theme of the board's advertising.

China is important because almond exports to Asia have doubled in recent years and shipments to China are up nearly 50 percent from last year.

Wasson said that consumer demand for almonds must increase. The mission of the ABC is to create a positive environment for sales, build international and domestic demand and stability of supply, with attention to product safety, enhancing quality production, development and distribution of information, and compliance with industry regulations.

The California industry, which has a crop of 670 million pounds for 2000, nearly 5 percent more than expected, dominates the world almond market. New acreage coming into bearing is expected to produce crops of one billion pounds.

"We want to make sure we are creating demand for more than we are able to market," said Wasson, who added that obstacles stood between the industry and that goal.

Change attitudes For the last 15 years, nuts of all sorts have been labeled as harmful to human health. "The message was nuts equal fat, so don't eat them," he said. However, research supported by the board came up with findings that were used in effective communication to change public attitudes about almonds and thereby increase demand.

"The next step is to have a consistent, five-year plan. The Almond Industry Markets (AIM-175) program calls for increasing average sales by 175 million pounds on an annual basis."

But the plan depends on increasing consumer demand. Per capita consumption of almonds in the U.S. for 1999 is estimated at 0.9 pound, up from just under 0.6 pound in 1996.

Turning to the situation in China, Wasson said in-shell sales there were 8.8 million pounds for the 2000-01 crop year at the end of November. In-shell product sales are up 316 percent over last year. In-shell product sales in China are five-to-one over shelled.

At its meeting during the conference, the ABC board added $210,000 to the existing China marketing program. These funds will be used for a television campaign keyed with the Chinese New Year in a multi-city promotion.

Retail outlets in China are primitive by western standards, but Wasson said fast-food restaurants and other modern outlets are increasing. In a statement released during the conference, he said, "We have recognized the potential for China for some time now, and here is an example of how our work in developing markets can pay off.

"Even through distribution is expanding, we have not even begun to fully tap the potential of this market. There is huge consumer demand in China. We are looking forward to the day the distribution channels allow our product to be more available."

Also speaking on exports, Julie Adams, ABC's director of international programs, said the industry has more than 500 million pounds moving in export shipments. "The majority of our exports are going to Western Europe, but we have seen incredible growth in Asia, particularly China.

"While exports represent well over 70 percent of shipments, we are looking at 100 different countries, all with different views and approaches to using almonds and what consumers are looking for," said Adams.

Considering the heightened popularity of California almonds in China, it might follow that the Chinese would want to develop their own industry. That appears rather unlikely, according to a geneticist with the University of California, Davis doing research for the board.

Tom Gradziel, said almonds are indeed grown in China but mostly as a forestry crop to reclaim desert areas. Any nuts produced are consumed locally or used in herbal medicines.

Climatic limitations "The first limitation China has to face in almond production is climate," said Gradziel, who added that the essentials are a Mediterranean climate with some chilling temperatures but not severe spring frosts.

Although the Gobi Desert is suited in some respects, its elevation at 4,000 feet presents risks of frosts. Other parts of the country, even while suited to walnut production, have a flowering time for almonds that is too late to avoid frost.

The second limitation is summer rainfall, which occurs in China and promotes diseases in almonds. Other problems are water availability, air pollution, salinity, government policy, and transportation.

Gradziel also reported on his work with almond variety development as one of the more than 20 reports on projects funded by the ABC and discussed at the conference.

He said rapid progress in breeding resistances into future varieties "will depend on accurate grower and processor-identification of almond disease where genetic resistance is essential." That will be necessary because chemical and cultural controls will not be economical for the industry in the future.

His project aims at release of Winters, a pollinizer for the highly popular Nonpareil, and breeding of reduced input but productive varieties having resistance to pests and diseases.

It also evaluates genetic materials for resistance to navel orangeworm and several almond diseases.

The Winters variety, formerly known as UCD,13-1, is timed for the early bloom of Nonpareil, which has the greatest proportion of viable flowers and potential for crop set. Winters has been one of the most productive in variety trials in Butte and Kern counties.

Yields of Winters have been impressive in regional variety trials. In 1999, its accumulated first four years of production was 6,000 pounds per acre, vs. 5,000 pounds for Nonpareil and 4,900 pounds for Carmel.

Winters has kernel and shell qualities on a par with Nonpareil and Carmel, and although free of non-infectious bud failure, it is susceptible to anthracnose and, to a lesser extent, alternaria.

Gradziel said molecular markers have been important in breeding of improved and reduced-input varieties in recent years. Over 40 genotypes have been identified from field tests, and 15 of the most promising have been selected for further testing.

Further breeding He said kernel and shell traits of several approach commercial standards, but further breeding may be necessary to improve kernel size and tree architecture to bring them in line with current orchard management systems.

Although Carmel has been attractive to growers, it is prey to noninfectious bud-failure, Gradziel said.

"A large, multi-year project, involving the breeding program, Extension specialists, farm advisors, and nursery and grower cooperators, has led to the identification and release of Carmel-source clones having low potential for showing low bud failure during the early, crucial years of tree development."

In the rootstock part of the breeding project, Gradziel said Nickels, an almond-peach hybrid, shares many features with the Hansen 536 rootstock. Those range from ease of propagation to resistance to rootknot nematodes and adaptability to calcareous soils.

Another presenter, Kent Daane, Extension specialist in insect biology, UC, Berkeley, reported on his trials on the effect of "soft" insecticides on natural enemies of peach twig borer (PTB).

His tests during the 2000 season screened the growth regulators Dimilin and Confirm, which prevent molting in insects. Neither is registered in California. He also screened Success, the registered bacterial by-product.

He said he found all three materials effective against PTB, and Success provided the best control over the greatest time. The natural enemies, green lacewing and Goniozus legneri, were not affected by the materials applied.

Daane also led an investigation of population dynamics of San Jose scale (SJS). This pest may become more important in the wake of the Food Quality Protection Act and other legislation aimed at organophosphates and dormant-season applications.

The project made initial field releases of small quantities of two, laboratory-reared, parasitoids of SJS: an Aphytis wasp species and an Encarsia whitefly species, in September. However, the researchers were not able to determine potential for a commercial augmentation program in that trial.

Daane said, "As many growers have suspected, tree age, cultivar, and orchard vigor may play a role in SJS densities." He also said green lacewing larvae are very adept at feeding on SJS.

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