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Walnut industry works to place nuts from record harvest

Tim Hearden TNFP1119-hearden-walnuts.JPG
WALNUT PUSH: The California walnut industry is working to place nuts from a record harvest amid concerns over a price slide.
Farmers fear prices may drop to the near-break-even range.

Walnut growers in California have mastered the art of increasing product production --- to the point of an anticipated record crop. Now they’re trying to figure out where to place the forecasted 780,000 short-ton harvest, a 19% increase from the previous season.

The forecast is based on 380,000 bearing acres, up 4% from the previous year’s acreage throughout the nut growing counties of Butte; Glenn; Kings; San Joaquin; Sutter; Stanislaus; Tehama; Tulare, and Yuba. Survey data indicates average nut set per tree at 1,197 which is up a whopping 22% from 2019’s average.

What is down for now are prices.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said average 2019 walnut price was just under $2 per ton and farmers fear this year's pricing, thanks to things like tariffs and coronavirus restrictions, may drop into the near-break-even range.

The 2020 season started early and optimistically. According to USDA/NASS data: “A warm and dry start meant growers began irrigating early (and) chilling hours were low with prolonged leaf-out.”

That jump in production wasn’t a total surprise, according to Robert Driver of the California Walnut Board, who called it “a result of increased acreage, more densely planted orchards, and heavier-yielding varieties.

“Demand creation for future crop utilization has been years in the making with strategic focus on growing both domestic and international market sales,” he said.

With the larger crop on its way, the Walnut Board has had to get creative in its expansion market efforts. Snacking has become the top consumer use, but munching a handful of healthy walnuts can only go so far in reducing the overload.

“We’ve been planning for these larger crops by expanding consumption through all sectors,” says Michelle Connelly, executive director of CWB. “Per capita consumption is 0.6 pounds annually and that leaves an exceptional opportunity to further develop consumers’ love of walnuts.”

Nutrition benefits

Researchers at the University of California, Davis, can cite a range of nutritional benefits to the most common variety of walnut, the English walnut, with its healthy fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.  Rich in antioxidants and omega 3 fats, these tree treats can help lower blood pressure, fight cancer, improve heart health, manage type 2 diabetes, support weight control and fight junk food cravings, improve concentration, and -- in this season of turmoil -- lower the risk of depression.

But first, consumers have to put them in their shopping cart.

Enter a bit of marketing creativity in the form of some innovative chefs across the country engaging in “Pan-to-Pan Combat” in a virtual cooking competition -- exclusively featuring plant-forward recipes all made with California walnuts.

Honoring the 4,800 growers and 90 handlers who tend the bearing acres in the Central Valley area, California Walnuts hosted five chefs as they proved the nuts versatility — the oldest tree food known to man — with original recipes.

Re-thinking California walnuts in new applications, the chefs cooked up everything from walnut ceviche and walnut beet hash to walnut and kale rollatini and walnut and vegetable tamales.  With an emphasis on comfort food and warm flavors, a walnut pot pie recipe took the $5,000 first prize.

Recipes can be found at walnuts.org.

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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