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New plantings fueled almonds’ ascent in Kern County

TNFP1015-blue-diamond-growers-almonds-kern.jpg Blue Diamond Growers
Almonds surpassed grapes and cotton to become Kern County’s No. 1 crop in 2019.
The nut surpassed grapes, cotton to become the county’s top crop in 2019.

“The King is dead.  Long live the King”.

That seemingly contradictory phrase has been around since the 1400s to announce changes in royal status, conveying the idea that something old had been replaced by something new.

And that has happened in Kern County where King Cotton has been displaced by a new leader -- almonds. The popular tree nut continues to get even more popular and according to a new report showing shifts in local farming, almonds shed their number two ranking to move into the top spot by posting a 33 percent sales increase.

“This is a normal year, but a good one for us,” says Agricultural Commissioner Glenn Fankhauser. “Any year you have an increase in value over the previous year is a good one, so in that sense, we did quite well.”

While almond prices dipped earlier this year, growers are optimistic the lower prices will push consumer demand which could portend positives for the future and Kern County could be in a good position to benefit by that action.

The county comprises the southernmost, warmest region of California's almond-growing acreage, which extends through much of the Central Valley and traditionally, the better crops come from the regions furthest south.

The latest figures on the Kern County Facts webpage place the county as No. 3 in the state in almond production, providing nearly a fifth of the entire state crop value produced by family-owned and multi-generational growers and handlers. That’s a far cry from the early days in the late 1970s when almonds made up just 5 percent of the county’s then-1 million harvested acres.

"Three thousand acres came into production during 2019 for a total of 226,000 acres countywide," said Crop Report Coordinator Cerise Montanio. "Not only was acreage a factor, but average yields also increased. The last few years, the almond industry has been plagued with bad weather and pollination problems, but 2019 fared well in those categories helping aid the impressive almond performance."

Pistachios also thrive

Kern County is also a hot spot for another tree nut variety -- pistachios -- that thrive in the San Joaquin Valley due to the region’s fertile soil, hot/dry climate, and moderately cold winters.

According to the California Farm Bureau Federation, Kern (along with Fresno and Tulare counties) account for about 80% of the state’s pistachio production. Pistachio production statewide is estimated by some to reach 1 billion pounds, although the American Pistachio Growers believe the final total will be closer to 900 million pounds because of erratic bloom weather and a lack of chill hours last winter.

Should the billion-pound mark be more accurate, it would mark the maturation of that industry from its initial plantings in Chico some 30 years to hitting the new benchmark.

The Top 5 commodities in Kern County are, in this order, almonds; grapes; citrus; pistachios, and milk, which account for three quarters of the more than $5.5 billion total value. Almonds (including byproducts) represent $1.64 billion while pistachios account for $887 million.

For its part, cotton fell off the county’s top-20 list entirely, taking a 46 percent decrease, while industrial hemp became the new guy on the block. Based on 2019 figures contrasting farmer revenue as opposed to retail prices, there was a 2 percent increase in gross sales.

Says the Ag Commissioner: “Kern is fortunate we have such a large portion of the county within the highly-productive southern San Joaquin Valley.  As such, we are uniquely positioned to be able to produce a variety of crops and many of our most common crops are staples the public continues to show a huge demand for.  Our continued place at the top of agricultural production in the county is a testament to Kern County growers being able to respond to this demand.”

For more news on tree nuts as reported by growers and farm advisors, subscribe to the Tree Nut Farm Press e-newsletter.

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