In Central Valley almond orchards, farmers are busy shaking, sweeping and harvesting the 2019 crop—and marketers say they expect little trouble in selling the crop at decent prices, despite the ongoing U.S.-China trade dispute.
Warm to hot July weather aided development of the almond crop, bringing on hull split for nonpareil and other almond varieties, although farmers say harvest is running a little later this year.
Stanislaus County almond grower Daniel Linder of Linder Family Ranch said he started harvest in mid-August and expects to be finished this week.
"With the trees shaken and nuts moved into windrows, the nuts will soon be picked up and then sent to the huller," said Linder, who oversees the almonds with Bill Banducci of Banducci Farming, a custom farming and farm management business in Oakdale. "The winter was a little tough on us, so we'll see what happens, but we're pretty happy with the way things look right now."
Seven years ago, Linder said, his family planted the self-fertile Independence almond variety, which requires fewer honeybees for pollination. The Independence works well with the farm's hilly topography and soil, he said, and "because it is nice to do one harvest and you are done by the first of September."
Though Independence still requires some bees, Banducci pointed out that during bloom, "We only had four or five days of good bloom weather. It kept raining, and Oakdale had close to 14 inches of rain. This, and a late rain in May, means that things are a little behind this year."
Despite that, he said, "things are going pretty well with the almond harvest. Things look good so far."
A few almond farmers in Turlock and Modesto began harvest with infestations of a relatively new pest, the brown marmorated stinkbug, an invasive insect from Asia. University of California Cooperative Extension integrated pest management advisor Jhalendra Rijal, who serves Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced counties, said the pest first appeared in commercial almond orchards in 2017.
"We've seen a couple of orchards that have pretty bad BMSB damage in almonds," said Rijal, who calls the stinkbug problematic because it can attack the crop throughout the season. "In terms of what percent of the almonds are damaged, we won't know until they've shaken the trees."
Insecticides are available to control other stinkbugs and leaf-footed bugs, but Rijal said he will continue to study the BMSB to develop solutions for farmers.
In the Sacramento Valley, Butte County almond farmer Stacy Gore said he began harvest about a week ago.
"I've got stuff that I'm pretty happy with and I've got stuff that was really good last year, but not as good this year," said Gore, describing the crop coming off of his trees. "Overall, things look decent. When you see them coming off of the tree in this big cascade of nuts, it feels pretty good."
Because the area endured much rain and wind during almond bloom in February, Gore said he didn't have much hope for the crop. But as the season progressed, he said, the nuts started to size well.
Almond growers, Gore said, continue to face challenges including government regulations and added paperwork, a lack of skilled employees and trade impacts. There is a limited supply of skilled people, he said, such as locating a qualified employee who can operate the shaker. If this is done incorrectly, he said, "there's a lot of potential for harming the future of the crop."
On the marketing future of the crop, Richard Waycott, president and CEO of the Almond Board of California, assessed the impact of the U.S.-China dispute. China, the third-largest export buyer of California almonds, began imposing retaliatory tariffs on almonds and other U.S. agricultural products last year (see related story).
"The outlook is: This too shall pass," Waycott said, "and we just need to keep working as best we can. Our outlook is always very long-term in what we do in creating consumer awareness and behavioral change, and trade relations and government relations."
So far, he said, "we really haven't felt any difference in how we're viewed (in China) or how the Chinese customer views almonds from California."
The Almond Board has maintained a strong relationship with China for the past 30 years, Waycott said. But for the last crop year that ended July 31, he said, California almond shipments to China and Hong Kong declined 25%.
Products from Australia enter China duty-free, Waycott said, supplying Chinese customers what the U.S. did not.
Though this is a concern, he said, California represents more than 80% of the world almond supply and produces more in one month than Australia does in a year, "so it's not a case where they can take the market away."
If the estimate for a 2.2 billion-pound California almond crop remains accurate, Waycott said, "pricing should be decent and I'm sure we'll sell everything we produce," adding that global demand "is very strong, despite the current trade situation."
Hughson Nut Inc. in Stanislaus County sells 35% of its almonds to export, according to company president Martin Pohl. He said although the company does some business with China, its export sales are spread pretty evenly through Europe and Asia.
"If you were a processor that sent a lot of product to China, obviously you are really affected; if you didn't sell so much to China, you are not as affected," Pohl said. "It's rather complicated, but we are very fortunate. We have a great product that is consumed all over the world. We should not have a problem at all moving our production this year. It will be sold."
As a result of the trade dispute with China, almond growers are among those eligible for assistance under the U.S. Department of Agriculture Market Facilitation Program. Applications for a second round of assistance continue until Dec. 6.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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