The upcoming Almond Conference is on track to draw a record crowd to its virtual event in early December. High on that list will be the much-anticipated "State of the Industry" address, which typically draws a standing-room only audience at the annual live event.
But this is 2020, and nothing is the same as years past. The annual event that typically draws 4,000 people to the downtown convention center in Sacramento will be virtual this year because of COVID-19 restrictions that continue to force live events to cancel, postpone or revamp their venue.
Registrations for the Dec. 8-10 virtual event are tracking well, according to Richard Waycott, president, chief executive officer of the Almond Board of California. In the first few weeks of registration over 2,400 people had already registered for the conference. Of those more than 800 are growers and handlers.
The annual state of the industry presentation, which in recent years has been a scripted conversation between Waycott and the board chairperson, will take on a different look this year as the Almond Board will use the State Theater in Modesto, Calif. to film the presentation. Waycott said it will take on a late-night television look "with me sort of playing the Johnny Carson role."
The discussion will feature Board Chairman Kent Stenderup, a grower from Arvin, Calif. with Stenderup Ag Partners, and Vice Chairman Brian Wahlbrink of Sperry Farms in Denair, Calif.
State of the industry
Just where does the California almond industry stand today? That question will be more fully answered in the online state of the industry presentation on Dec. 8. Until then, perhaps the most popular news continues to be low grower prices. Waycott offered some context to the issue as he also referenced the organization's 2025 goals in an excusive interview with Western Farm Press.
Waycott came to the Almond Board in 2002 when handler receipts first cracked one billion pounds and grower prices were about $1.05 per pound. In the 18 years since coming to the Almond Board Waycott has overseen an industry where growth shows no signs of slowing.
Production in his tenure has tripled as this season's forecast is for 3 billion pounds of kernels. Though not entirely unexpected, a "perfect storm" of global events beyond the almond industry's control sent grower prices in 2020 crashing to near $1.50 per pound. A global pandemic on the heels of an almond survey that undercounted the 2019/20 crop by 350 million pounds can take co-credit for a sea of red ink on grower return ledger sheets.
Early season shipments hit record levels in September and October, according to the Almond Board's monthly position report. California shipped nearly 74 million pounds of almonds to domestic markets in October, over 10 million pounds more than was shipped the same time last year.
Export shipments since August have been monthly records, totaling over 560 million pounds in the three months since the marketing year began. In all, U.S. almond shipments to all markets in the first three months were over 763 million pounds, or about one-fourth of the current crop estimation.
The global pandemic caused India, America's largest buyer of almonds, to cease shipment there for several months. That abruptly turned around in August when sales resumed in earnest. By the end of October year-over-year shipments to India totaled more than 146 million pounds, or 110 percent more than the previous year-to-date.
"We shipped over 100 million pounds of almonds to India in three months this year," Waycott said. "That's unheard of."
China is a different story. The retaliatory tariff of 55% on U.S. almonds left the door open wide for Australian almonds, which had no tariff on them. There appears to be some geopolitical differences between China and Australia today, according to Waycott, that could improve the U.S. industry's chance at boosting shipments to China.
Additionally, Chinese importers can apply for a reduction in the retaliatory tariff, lowering that duty to 25% under an exemption that must be approved by the Chinese government. Add to that the lower price of U.S. almonds and the upcoming Chinese New Year celebration, and Waycott says there may be room for optimism, particularly as China has reportedly lifted its restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Waycott defended what seems like a large carry-in of 450 million pounds, or about 17% of last year's crop. He said the larger carry-in gave the industry the ability to fill orders at the outset of the marketing year while nuts were being harvested.
Waycott hopes the 2021 almond conference can return to a live venue in early December at the Sacramento Convention Center, which is finishing a two-year renovation that forced the industry to use the Cal Expo fairgrounds last year and would have forced the Almond Board to return to the fairgrounds had pandemic restrictions forced cancellation of live events in the U.S.
Returning to a live event in 2021 with its trade show may include a hybrid offering as Waycott believes some of what is learned from this year's all-virtual event can be incorporated in future events to make the California Almond Conference more attractive to an international audience.