SACRAMENTO — With production costs increasing and more trees coming into production, the Almond Board of California is looking to get the most out of each orchard.
The organization is using a portion of a temporary 1-cent assessment increase to research new uses for hulls, shells and woody biomass as well as opening new markets for the nut, industry leaders said.
For instance, researchers are looking into feeding hulls to insects and using their larvae as chicken feed, and using shells to firm up the recycled plastics that are used for such items as nursery flats, said board president and chief executive officer Richard Waycott.
“I think we have done a great job as an industry of taking our kernel to the stratosphere,” Waycott told nearly 4,000 attendees of the annual Almond Conference this week at the Sacramento Convention Center.
“With the rest of what we do in the orchard, for the co-products, there are singular markets,” he said. “There’s dairy for the hulls, livestock bedding for the shells and biomass for the wood. One of the things we’re really working on is taking each one of those co-products in a new direction.”
The efforts come amid a sense of urgency in the industry as new plantings continue to enter production. The nearly 2.3 billion meat pounds of almonds harvested this year is expected to grow to as much as 3 billion pounds within five years — an increase of about 30 percent, Waycott said.
Meanwhile, the cost of inputs is rising. Board chairman Mike Mason, a Shafter, Calif., producer, said his costs have tripled in the last 20 years.
“If it only doubles in the next 20 years, we’re still talking about $7,000 an acre,” Mason said, adding that none of growers’ costs are expected to go down. “That’s why we need to prepare ourselves with these co-products.”
A nursery survey in late 2016 reported at least 14.5 million new almond trees had been planted since June 2015. So far, demand has been keeping pace, as domestic shipments and exports were up 14 percent and 17 percent, respectively, for the 2016-17 crop year, according to the Almond Board.
The shipment increases have helped prices stabilize in recent months after a price slide that began in late 2015, with prices falling by nearly half from the more than $4 a pound that was paid for some almonds during the 2014 crop year.
“I think it’s (now) in a range that isn’t injurious to growers financially,” Waycott said in an interview. “I think if you asked every handler in the room, you’d find people who thought that almonds got overpriced for awhile.”
The USDA gave the Almond Board permission in December 2016 to raise its handler assessments from 3 cents to 4 cents per pound until mid-2019. The board already had a budget of about $50 million.
Among its new initiatives is a $4.8 million research commitment to achieve “the farm of the future,” officials announced Dec. 4. The money will fund 65 projects related to water and environmental sustainability, honeybee health and the research into new uses for co-products.
The board is also expanding its overseas marketing, returning to Japan after having been absent from there in recent years and beginning new pushes in Italy, Mexico and South America, Waycott said.