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Serving: West

Almond industry casts a wary eye on future

Tim Hearden WFP-hearden-almond-soti-120821.jpg
Almond Board of California chairman Brian Wohlbrink, left, and president Richard Waycott give a "State of the Industry" presentation at the 49th Almond Conference on Dec. 7, 2021 in Sacramento, Calif.
'Times are tough, maybe the toughest ever,' Almond Board chairman tells conference.

From drought and heat that affected yields to a nagging shipping container crisis that has jeopardized its lucrative overseas contracts, the almond industry faces no shortage of challenges heading into 2022.

While almond production last season set new records at over 3 billion pounds valued at $5.6 billion, the West's severe drought and blistering temperatures last summer shrunk yields this season just as a large carryover supply has depressed prices, according to USDA reports.

But industry leaders have tried to maintain an optimistic tone at this week's 49th Almond Conference in Sacramento, touting expanding global demand for almonds and recent research that ties consumption of the nut to maintaining healthy skin.

"Times are tough, maybe the toughest ever," Almond Board of California chairman Brian Wahlbrink said during a conference-opening "State of the Industry" address on Dec. 7. "There are so many chips stacked against us, but the industry has always been resilient. The industry has always recovered from price slides."

Related: Almonds, walnuts set to decline after records

Almond Board president and chief executive officer Richard Waycott agreed.

"I've been in the industry for 19 years, and we seem to have tough times and then we come out of them for a while," he told the gathering. "I have faith in the future. I"m optimistic. We've done it before, and I'm confident we'll do it again."

Gathering in person

The three-day conference, which concludes today, Dec. 9, is the first in two years to be held in person and the first in three years to be staged in downtown Sacramento. A completed remodel of the SAFE Credit Union Convention Center enabled the conference's return after it was held in 2019 at Cal Expo, home of the California State Fair. Last year's conference was virtual because of coronavirus-related restrictions on public gatherings.

The USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service predicted a 2.8 billion pound crop for 2021-22 despite an increase in bearing acreage, because of record high temperatures and low water allocations. Almonds aren't alone; walnut production is expected to decline from last year’s record haul of 785,000 tons, which drove U.S. walnut grower prices to their lowest in 13 years.

Tree nut growers face all sorts of headwinds as they try to regain their footing. Among them are efforts in some areas to escalate implementation of the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act as previous droughts have prompted over-pumping, which has led to land subsidence in the San Joaquin Valley.

Related: Almond Conference anticipates big turnout

Industry representatives are heartened by what Waycott called a "massive per-capita increase in consumption in many countries around the world, including this one." But they note that 2021 has come with an ocean full of shipping crises, including rolled assignments, excessive detention and demurrage fees, eliminated vessel stops and shortages of warehousing space.

Each of these issues puts contracts and customer relations in peril, they say.

"The supply chain is on everyone's mind," Waycott said. "I think it'll be on people's mind for months into the future."

Industry highlights

Still, Waycott and Wahlbrink noted some highlights from the past year. Among them:

  • A new study by researchers at the University of California, Davis found that eating almonds daily in place of typical calorie-matched snacks improved measures of both wrinkle severity and skin pigmentation in postmenopausal women. The study was funded by the Almond Board and confirms and expands upon findings in a 2019 study.
  • The board implemented its five-point Pollinator Protection Plan, which expands the industry’s long-standing commitment to researching, protecting and improving bee health.
  • The board announced a deal with Disney to promote almonds in conjunction with the Marvel Comics movie, "Thor: Love and Thunder," which is due out in July 2022.

The highlights came as Waycott and Wahlbrink acted out a mock version of ESPN's "Sportscenter," which they called "AlmondCenter," during which they showed video segments of Almond Board employees and board members discussing their initiatives. The show included commercial breaks, including one that featured almond-promoting TV spots running in European and Asian countries.

The presentation kicked off a conference that featured a rrecord 270 exhibitors and 40 sponsors.

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