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Tree nut industry outlook covered at conference

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Tree nut growers in California remain optimistic about the coming season.
Nut industry insiders remain optimistic as big crops await.

This year’s Outlook Agribusiness Conference was virtual and topical --- “It’s All About California Agriculture” being the 2021 theme --- presented by the California Chapter of American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers in cooperation with USDA-NASS.

Among the many breakout sessions was an hour-long presentation designed as an update for the Tree Nut Industry, conducted by Jim Zion, Managing Partner of Meridian Growers.

The Madera-based former Managing Director at the California Department of Food and Agriculture now sells 25 million pounds of nuts and dried fruits annually in over 40 countries and has his finger on the pulse of the almond-pistachio-walnut-pecan world.

“Despite everything going on, growers of all four of these commodities saw a somewhat flat return in terms of farm value and I suspect that, going forward, we’ll see this trend for at least the next year or so," he said.  "Despite the headwinds we’ve encountered, we’ve been able to maintain decent demand and fairly decent returns."

Pistachios

“We finally broke the billion pound crop in 2020 and we’re starting to see quite a bit of new varieties with major production in California, Arizona, and New Mexico and some big growth plans in Arizona,” he said. “We’re now at 370,000 bearing acres with up to 20,000 acres coming into production annually.

“Next year’s conventional wisdom has the off-year crop coming in at 850 million pounds, but based on bud set, we could easily see another 900 million to 1 billion pound crop,” he said. “Carryover will be about 300 million pounds.

“Pistachios are no longer the little brother to almonds. We’re a major crop in California with new acreage coming into production every year, most of that in newer varieties like Lost Hills and Golden Hills -- prolific producers.”

Backing up his contention of a bright future for pistachios, he announced plans for construction of a new $41 million processing plant to be built in Firebaugh, noting, “Putting a processing plant in California is not for the faint of heart right now, but it’s something we felt we needed to do.”

Zion is a partner in the facility, which is slated to receive its first crop with the 2021 harvest. The plant will have a capacity of about 20 million pounds, he said.

Almonds

“The largest and best-known nut crop in the state (almost three times larger than pistachios) responsible for up to 85% of the world’s production, an industry that has done a fantastic job in finding new uses and new markets for a 3 billion pound crop,” Zion said.

“Working some 1.25 million acres, plantings have started to slow down a bit and we may be starting to see a plateau in production,” he said. Although sizing was an issue in the last harvest, quality was excellent this year. We’ve seen increased consumption and record shipments and have already started to see increases in almond prices. I expect that to continue in 2Q 2021.”

Pecans

“This is the only nut spread out from California to Florida and after being plagued by stagnant production growth, it’s slowly starting to increase in California,” he said. “As to this year’s crop, we’ll have to wait and see what the June drop looks like, but things are starting to shape up nicely after a fairly decent crop last year. We’re anticipating a slight increase in production, but it’s difficult to predict. We won’t have a good idea until the first frosts come and harvest begins in November.

“I’m seeing increased plantings in the Southwest, mainly Arizona and not California with 5,000 acres that doesn’t change, it’s just the way it is.”

Walnuts

“This is the problem child this year as a lot of production is starting to come out of China and India,” he said. “The California walnut industry, with 5% of the market share, faces a lot of headwinds even as the U.S. crop continues to grow with plantings of new varieties of Chandler and other higher producers. We’re just under 400,000 bearing acres and anticipate some 6,000 new acres per year.

“If you’re a walnut grower, this is a year you want to just grab a bottle of wine and hope 2021 ends up being better.”

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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