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Yields mixed as California walnut harvest enters peak

Tim Hearden

Capital Press

The walnut harvest in California is entering its peak as the USDA is predicting a crop that is slightly smaller than last year's. Growers are reporting good quality, and at least one variety -- Howards -- is showing good yields.

RED BLUFF, Calif. — As California’s walnut harvest moves into its peak, yields this season appear to depend on the variety, growers say.

At Crain Orchards here, yields of the earliest varieties were about average, farm manager Jud Pray said. But now that Howards are coming off the trees, volume is looking up, he said.

“The yields look very good in the Howards this year,” he said. “We still have a ways to go, but they look very good … When we get to Chandlers, it might be a different story. That crop might be off a little bit compared to last year.”

Crain Orchards grows just about every major variety of walnuts, so Pray expects the tree shakers and harvesters to keep rolling throughout October, he said.

The first walnuts came off trees in early September as the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service predicted that 495,000 tons of the crop will be produced this year, a slight drop from the 497,000 tons produced in 2012. Last year’s harvest exceeded expectations, as NASS had predicted a 470,000-ton crop.

There are about 255,000 bearing acres of walnuts in the Golden State this year, an all-time high, according to NASS. California walnuts account for 99 percent of the U.S. commercial supply and roughly three-quarters of world trade.

California’s walnut production set records in three consecutive years before a disappointing crop in 2011, which was made worse when nearly a week of early October rain in Northern California caused walnut processing plants to grind to a halt.

A band of rain through the Sacramento Valley on Sept. 21 stopped the harvest for a couple of days, and a few thundershowers since then have “just kind of been in the way,” Pray said.

“A little bit of rain this time of year actually helps us,” he said. “It helps the nuts mature faster.”

So far, the valley has avoided another potentially perilous weather development – heat. A hot, dry day can deplete moisture from the nuts as trees become stressed. But afternoon highs have been virtually ideal, peaking in the high 70s or low 80s.

The above-average rainfall that Sacramento received late last fall helped the trees build a more vigorous root system, then dry and warm weather contributed to a longer bloom this spring, NASS observed. Dense foliage helped limit sunburn damage this summer, although a hot spell around the Fourth of July concerned growers.

All in all, growers have been pleased with the quality of nuts, said Carl Eidsath, a technical support director for the California Walnut Commission.

“There was not a lot of pest pressure and not a lot of sunburn,” he said. “It’s just starting to hit its stride right now. In six weeks when Chandlers are done, we’ll see how it works out.”

Online

Crain Walnut Shelling Inc.: http://www.crainwalnut.com

California Walnut Commission: http://www.walnuts.org

2013 California Walnut Objective Measurement Report: http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/California/Publications/Fruits_and_Nuts/201309walom.pdf



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