RED BLUFF, Calif. — Shorter-than-expected walnut crops in California and China have pushed prices to near record levels as handlers scramble to meet burgeoning overseas demand for the nut.
At the Linden Nut Co. near Stockton, Calif., handler Roger LeMaux is paying growers $2.03 per pound for Chandler walnuts, he said. The overall average price last year was $1.46 a pound, according to the California Walnut Commission.
“Walnuts have never been as high as two bucks, ever,” LeMaux said, adding that he plans to ship 23 million pounds to 35 countries this season. “We’re very pleased with what’s going on and the growers are very pleased. Everyone’s really happy.”
Grower Tyler Christensen, who has about 400 acres of walnuts here, said he’s getting “in the very high $1 range” per pound for his crop, an all-time high.
“It’s really good right now,” he said. “I don’t know how long it’s going to last but we’ll enjoy it while we’ve got it.”
Most handlers will start paying out in December with the final payments made during the spring, but the trend of near-record prices is likely to continue, said Jonathan Field, general manager of the Walnut Bargaining Association.
“It could be record levels,” Field said. “They’re definitely very high. From the (freight-on-board) side, what handlers are receiving has been very high.”
A key factor is that California’s crop is now expected to come in at 450,000 to 470,000 tons, well short of the 495,000 tons predicted by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, Field said. Growers reported mixed yields during the harvest, as those for early-season varieties were average at best.
In addition, China — a major purchaser of California walnuts — had its own crop come up about 25 percent short, industry insiders say. But the nation’s insatiable appetite for walnuts hasn’t waned.
“Demand is sky-high,” said Dennis Balint, president of the California Walnut Commission. “Quality is the reason the Chinese have ultimately decided California is a good buy. The product is clean and fresh. … Certainly quality and food safety play into it. We have a good record there as well.”
California walnuts account for 99 percent of the U.S. commercial supply and roughly three-quarters of world trade. The bearing acreage in the Golden State was at an all-time high this year at 255,000, according to NASS.
Prices for walnuts have been sharply escalating in recent years, from an average of 64 cents a pound in 2008 to $1.46 a pound last year, according to walnut commission statistics. The increases have come amid boosts in production, as last year’s crop was the second-largest in history and marked a significant increase from the 461,000 tons produced in 2011.
Walnuts have joined almonds and pistachios in a sort of nut boom over the last decade or longer, as health-minded consumers in the U.S. and overseas have learned of their nutritional value and developed tastes for them both as snacks and food ingredients.
In 2011, the American Heart Association certified walnuts as heart-healthy, and last year a University of California-Los Angeles study suggested a steady diet of walnuts could boost male fertility.
“It’s just a number of health issues that have really pumped the industry,” LeMaux said. “It’s good. It’ll come down sooner or later, but it’s never going to go back (to 2008 levels) from what we’re being told.”
California Walnut Commission: http://www.walnuts.org