SACRAMENTO — Walnut growers in California are expecting a slightly smaller crop this fall, but bigger nut sizes could be a hit in the global marketplace.
Farms in the southern San Joaquin Valley have begun harvesting the earliest varieties in what the National Agricultural Statistics Service expects to be a 650,000-ton statewide crop.
That’s a 5 percent drop from last year’s record production of 686,000 tons, and survey data shows a record low average nut set of 1,141 per tree, down 19 percent from 2016’s average of 1,406, NASS reported.
But the lower nut sets were not a surprise, said Michelle Connelly, the California Walnut Board’s executive director.
“It’s a good thing because sizes were bigger” in this year’s survey, Connelly said.
The in-shell weight per nut and length and width measurements all came in above last year’s sizes, according to NASS. Overall, 98.1 percent of in-shell kernels were sound, the agency reported.
Larger, meatier walnuts could be a benefit as the industry is still rebounding from a price slide in 2014 and 2015 that made it difficult for some highly leveraged growers with young orchards to turn a profit.
The price per ton for the 2016-17 shipping year averaged $1,810, up from $1,670 in the previous year but still down considerably from the peak of $3,710 in 2013, according to NASS. The total value of the crop harvested in 2016 came in at $1.24 billion, up from just over $1 billion for the 2015 crop.
Growers have worked in recent years to maximize quality to get the most out of softening prices amid three straight record crops. Farm advisers have offered tips on producing high-quality, lighter kernels, such as not watering too much or too little, guarding against leaf-feeding insects and trying to harvest near the beginning of hull split.
The larger sizes could be attractive in export markets where in-shell nuts are popular, Connelly said.
“It’s certainly good news for export markets,” she said.
Walnut harvests typically ramp up in late September and continue through October. This year’s harvest is about a week late because of weather, Connelly said.
Walnut orchards received adequate chilling hours while sopping up record amounts of rain last winter and spring, NASS noted. Some orchards were saturated for several weeks, which compromised their root system, and others saw higher-than-average insect pressure, according to the agency.
In the summer, a persistent series of heat waves pushed temperatures in some parts of the Central Valley near or above 110 degrees, prompting growers to manage sunburn with kaolin particle films.
The NASS survey in early August used 737 randomly selected blocks throughout California with two sample trees per block. The agency has been doing the surveys since 1958.