Although the definitive California 2020 walnut harvest came in a few tons under initial projection, those final numbers did reflect what one industry expert called “crazy growth.”
And more expansion is expected, according to Jonathan Field, General Manager of the Walnut Bargaining Association. Noting that bearing acres have almost doubled in 20 years [204,000 in 2001 versus 380,000 today], he said: “A lot of that growth was based on the health aspects of walnuts. The whole nut category has been marketing the health message and the phenomenal growth in the almond industry kind of dragged along much of the growth in other nut varieties.”
A lot of eyes are keeping track of that growth, perhaps thinking of becoming a part of it. “A friend of mine, a nectarine grower, said during the peak of his season, he had 400 workers on payroll, while it only took he and his brother to do almost all the labor for 400 acres of walnuts," he said.
While the Chandler variety, introduced in the early 1980s, comprises about 60 percent of total industry acreage, Hartley’s, the old-time in-shell product, Howard, and Tulare crowd the top of that list and it’s expected the recently-announced University of California, Davis Wolfskill variety, similar to Chandler and Solano with an earlier harvest, may soon play a larger part. Over that same time frame, the number of trees planted per-acre went from 55 ½ to 76 ½.
“From an investment perspective, you want to get your return as soon as possible, so your mission is filling the canopy, and as you fill the canopy, you have denser planting,” Field said. “In fact, a lot of the newer plantings are over 100 trees per acre. There’s more management required with denser plantings, but we now have the benefit of drip and sprinkler irrigation to replace flooding and the newer plantings are done so in a more efficient way to take advantage of newer irrigation methods.”
WBA produces an annual economic analysis and the latest data show a promising future. “Agriculture, like the stock market, has its ups and downs,” reminds Field. “You just hope that over the long term, it continues to grow and walnuts, over the long term, are a viable option. There’s still growth potential in untapped worldwide markets, like India, as well as favorable potential within the domestic market.”
No ’name brand’
While noting that almonds and pistachios have dominant branding (Blue Diamond and Wonderful), he added: “We don’t currently have a name brand in walnuts. You go to a Super Bowl party and you’ll find a bowl of pistachios or flavored almonds, but you don’t often see a bowl of flavored walnuts, although that’s slowly starting to change.”
So what does the future portend for the walnut industry? “2019 was a down year, price-wise. In 2020, average pricing also came in lower,” he said. “We had a large crop along with a pandemic and trade issues that impacted product movement and left per-pound pricing at a point where it was difficult to cover cost of production forcing marginal producers and marginal orchards to pull out.
“Drive around the state and you’ll see many walnut orchards that have been removed because not enough dollars were being returned to the farm. But looking ahead, I expect within the next five years we’ll see an increase in planted bearing acres that will produce 800,000 tons or more before stabilizing to allow the industry to catch up. I’m still bullish on the walnut market.”
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