New almond tree plantings may pick up again after lull

Tim Hearden/Capital Press Several trees planted this year are the newest additions to an almond orchard in Tehama, Calif. New almond tree plantings are showing signs of picking up again after a lull.

California shipping 'record volumes almost every month'

By TIM HEARDEN

Capital Press

As the worldwide demand for California almonds remains as strong as ever, there's always room for new orchard plantings, industry representatives say.

As the state's almond yield has quadrupled over the past three decades and as some 730,000 acres are under almond cultivation, almond growers thought it was virtually impossible to plant too many trees.

That confidence has waned in the past couple of years, as bad weather made for a disappointing 2009 crop and water shortages bedeviled orchards in the western San Joaquin Valley.

But domestic and overseas shipments of California almonds are still increasing at a brisk pace, said Richard Waycott, president and chief executive officer of the Almond Board of California.

"I think the remarkable thing over the last couple of years has been how we've continued to be able to virtually ship record volumes almost every month," Waycott said.

With plenty of orders to fill and with another possible near-record crop expected for 2010, California may achieve close to 800,000 almond-bearing acres in the next two or three years, he said.

"That may see a little plateau there for a while," Waycott said. "Planting slowed down here the last couple of years as pricing got a little more difficult, with the economic uncertainty and as crop inputs went way up, but we've corrected that a little."

California, which produces 80 percent of the world's almonds, was projected to have a 2009-2010 crop yield of 1.35 billion meat pounds, a drop of some 16 percent from the 1.61 billion pounds recorded for 2008-2009.

However, growers this season are on a pace to ship 1.5 billion or more pounds of nuts, which will deplete the carryover supply to about 200,000 pounds, said Dave Baker, director of member relations for Blue Diamond Growers.

"Currently prices have risen to levels that are reaching profitability for growers after only slumping for about 18 months," Baker said. "Prices are rebounding well due to consumption. We have some new areas in the world such as Indonesia, China, the Middle East ... that are increasing consumption."

Despite the recession, California almond shipments grew by 10 percent in the 2008-09 crop year and are 18 percent higher to date this year than last year, Waycott said. After a glut of almonds pushed prices down, they're now fetching between $2.20 and $3 a pound depending on the variety, Baker said.

Adding to the demand for California almonds is the fact that severe frost in Spain, a chief competitor, has reduced that country's crop potential, he said.

Growers in the Golden State have expected another large crop this year, but they're anxiously waiting to see what impact this year's rain-shortened bloom may have on orchards, Baker said. Nonpareils in particular seem to be the most severely affected, he said.

However, although new plantings in early 2009 dropped to the lowest they'd been in several years, nurseries this year are gearing up as growers are starting to order more trees, Baker said.

"That's normally the case when prices are being sustained at profitable levels," he said. "Growers either replant old orchards ... or expand acreage."

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