Turns out this year may not be as gloomy as earlier predicted if your name is Michael Kelley and you oversee operations at Central California Almond Growers Association, the largest almond sheller and huller in the world.
“At the beginning, the crop looked like it would be off quite a bit from last year’s record harvest, but as we got later into crop, into the pollinators, a predicted 15 percent reduction may turn out to be only an eight percent reduction thanks to some of the later varieties doing much better than anybody thought.”
In addition to the crop being larger, “Count sizes also improved along with moisture levels.” The whole tail-end of the season got underway at a hectic pace and isn’t expected to slow down until somewhere about Christmas or even into early January, which is a bit later than the usual mid-December finish.
Kelley said CCAGA facilities process in the neighborhood of 50,000 pounds per hour.
“There are a lot of huller/shellers that only run one facility while we have four sites that cover the Central San Joaquin Valley. Our 375 growers represent over 63,000 orchard acres, so we are challenged by the very scale of our operations. We have to have that quantity of chillers because of the size of our endeavor and getting enough labor to run those facilities while managing COVID has been a struggle.”
In the business since 1963, the proactive agricultural service cooperative for farmers in the eastern part of Fresno County is forward-thinking and anticipates that a dearth of workers combined with a plethora of regulations, a lingering pandemic and a lingering drought — all of it impacted by climate change — will bring about some serious change to the industry moving forward.
“There’s talk that a number of acres may be lost due to the sustainable groundwater management program and other factors related to water availability and use. It’s possible we’ll lose acreage in the San Joaquin Valley as some orchards are fallowed or planted in row crops although permanent crops, to a lesser degree, should come off OK as long as prices stay strong.”
Some trees pulled
That said, he acknowledges that trees have been pulled even within his membership. “In one case, 400 acres at one of our growers, got pushed over because of a lack of water.
“Some of our irrigation districts involve growers who deal with a range of pricing from lowest-to-highest cost irrigation supply, but for the most part we’re seeing new orchards on the East side of the Valley and in the lower-end irrigation districts, so I think overall acreage will stay the same or maybe even grow a little bit.”
In addition to the previously-mentioned 2021 harvest problems, Kelley adds mention of this year’s pest situation: “It’s been a bad year for navel orangeworm,” he said. “Early on, when almonds were extremely small and before their size started to increase, we encountered NOW problems. And there was an unusual level of damage from plant bugs that suck on the almond in its embryonic stage and leave a mark that buyers don’t really like.”
But, overall, with numbers and sizes up from earlier predictions, Kelley approaches the season end with an optimistic outlook. “While the crop is off from the lofty levels we saw in last year’s record season, it has still been moving the price of almonds in favor of growers, so all-in-all, it’s been turning out to be an OK year.”