By TIM HEARDEN
RED BLUFF, Calif. - In the world of walnut production, everything is going up.
Producers put out 497,000 tons of walnuts from this past harvest, marking their second largest crop in history and making a significant increase from the 461,000 tons produced last season, said Dennis Balint, CEO of the California Walnut Commission.
California's 245,000 bearing acres continues a steady upward trend since 1996, when 192,000 acres produced walnuts in the state, Balint reported.
And walnut prices 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 commission statistics. The trend is defying basic supply-and-demand rules under which prices usually drop when supply increases, Balint said.
"We are seeing more of an increase in price than we are in production," he told about 100 growers here Feb. 1. "That's a very favorable situation. It's scary favorable."
California walnuts account for 99 percent of the U.S. commercial supply and roughly three-quarters of world trade. This season's crop was bolstered by favorable weather during pollination and ideal spring conditions, the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service has reported.
However, NASS projected only a 470,000-ton crop in 2012. Producers indicated last month their harvests beat those estimates by 10,000 to 20,000 tons, citing continued good weather and high nut quality.
Walnuts have joined almonds and pistachios in a sort of nut boom over the past 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, enabling retailers to display its heart-check mark label near supplies. Last year, a University of California-Los Angeles study suggested a steady diet of walnuts could boost male fertility.
Exports now represent 58 percent of walnut shipments, although the United States remains the No. 1 market for the nut, Balint said.
The increased demand has teamed with innovations in irrigation methods and the misfortunes of other commodities to account for the expanding walnut acreages in California's Central Valley, experts have said. Many growers have switched to walnuts as plum orchards grown for prunes were scaled back in recent years as a result of a loss of global market share.
One challenge for growers is the Food Safety Modernization Act, which stiffens safety requirements for growers and handlers and gives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authority to order mandatory recalls.
Growers must take steps to prevent contamination of nuts, such as keeping animals out of orchards, requiring frequent hand washing by pickers and keeping equipment clean, the California Walnut Board has advised.
"Food safety is becoming a bigger and bigger issue," Balint told growers. "It's going to affect all of us soon."
California Walnut Commission: http://www.walnuts.org/