The California English walnut industry has a profusion of challenges and successes in its sights, including the short- and long-term impact of the state’s drought on the state’s number two tree nut crop and unlocking its genome in the next few years.
“Water is the top issue on everyone’s mind in California agriculture,” says Dennis Balint, executive director of the California Walnut Board (CWB) and chief executive officer of the California Walnut Commission (CWC).
The CWB-CWC represents California’s estimated 4,000 growers and more than 100 handlers. The CWB is funded by mandatory assessments of handlers while the CWC receives dollars via mandatory grower assessments.
Water is an extremely sensitive issue, Balint says, as the water demands of a growing state population and those of agriculture exceed the available liquid supply.
“Two-thirds of the nation’s specialty crops are grown in California. Water is the key to its future success,” said the walnut leader.
Balint delved into a plethora of walnut issues - water, acreage, record grower prices, exports, pests and diseases, and others – this spring during a question and answer exchange at the CWB-CWC office in Folsom, Calif.
While the California drought is front-and-center on most everyone’s radar screen, Balint says the walnut industry could have a slight water edge over its tree nut competitors – almonds (the state’s top nut crop in total production) and pistachios (ranked third).
Much of the state’s walnut crop is grown in the northern part of the Central Valley where water is typically more available than the valley’s central and southern sections. What all three nut industries have in common is water-saving drip irrigation.
“Anyone serious about the tree nut business for the long term or anyone who has planted a new variety is growing nuts with drip irrigation,” Balint says.
Water use for walnuts can vary across the state. In Tehama County, a mature walnut orchard generally requires about 42 inches of water annually.
A 450-mile stretch
California walnut acresage stretches across a 450-mile, north-to-south section of the Central Valley - from north of Red Bluff (Tehama County) to south of Visalia (Tulare County).
California growers produce almost every commercially-grown walnut in the U.S. (99.99 percent). California walnut acreage totals about 300,000 acres - 255,000 bearing and about 40,000 non-bearing.
According to the 2013 California Walnut Nursery Sales Report, more than 15,000 acres of nursery walnut stock were planted last year.
The top walnut varieties, in order, include Chandler (about 50 percent), Howard, Tulare, and Hartley. These represent about 80 percent of all plantings.
“We are always looking for the ‘Super Nut’ – the next best walnut variety,” Balint said.
The industry wants an earlier harvested variety ready for tree shaking in mid-September – about a month earlier than current varieties - to extend the harvest window to benefit growers and hullers.
“The new Ivanhoe variety shows promise,” Balint said. “Ivanhoe performs well in the southern Central Valley. Questions remain about how well it will perform in the northern regions.”
Traditional breeding is a lengthy process to weigh the pros and cons of test varieties in research plantings and grower cooperator orchards. But hold onto the steering wheel - walnut breeding is about four years away from finding superior varieties – quickly – by unlocking (mapping) the walnut genome.
This milestone will revolutionize walnut breeding.
“In a few years, totally understanding the walnut genome will allow us to quickly identify which traits in the tree are desirable and then cross breed the traits with other desirable traits,” Balint explained.
“This will allow breeders to bring improved walnut varieties to the market much faster.”
Balint stressed that new genome-developed varieties will be advanced cross-bred varieties; not genetically-modified (GMO) trees.
The genome research is led by University of California, Davis plant breeder David Neale and funded by the CWB.
California walnuts are a $1.5 billion farm gate business. Production in recent years has ranged from 460,000 tons to 495,000 tons, or about two tons per acre.
2010 was the all-time walnut production record year with 503,000 tons of nuts. Balint expects the production record to shatter soon as more commercial acreage comes into bearing.
“In the last 11 years, California walnut production has doubled while the farm gate value has quintupled,” Balint said.
Prices headed north?
Walnut field (grower) prices averaged a record $1.52 per inshell pound during the 2012-2013 crop year. The walnut crop year runs from Sept. 1 through Aug. 31.
“Walnuts are on a great price run and field prices are very strong,” Balint said.
In 2008, field prices fell to 64 cents-per-inshell pound yet prices have risen each year since.
“I think we’ll blow past the $1.52 per pound level in the 2013-2014 crop year,” Balint predicts. “Demand is very strong while inventory remains low. New users are coming into the market which also drives demand.”
Turning to exports, about 62 percent of California walnuts are exported. The top export market is China which purchases about 22 percent of the California walnut crop.
CWB research suggests that 70 percent of consumers consume walnuts as a snack. A large portion goes into the ingredient market for baking.
Balint has served the California walnut industry for 27 years. He previously worked in the macadamia nut industry. While other CWB-CWC staff members handle walnut marketing, Balint works mainly on walnut regulatory issues, trade policy, and issues
Balint has chimed in on the controversial methyl bromide issue. For years, methyl bromide was used across agriculture as a soil fumigant to rid soils of pests and diseases prior to planting. California government has banned methyl bromide
for many farm fields and orchards, including walnuts, claiming the product is a volatile active compound which threatens the Earth’s ozone layer.
A replacement fumigant for walnuts - sulfuryl fluoride – is also under government review as regulators weigh the impact of fluoride on the environment.
“About 99 percent of the fluoride people come in contact with is in toothpaste, drinking water, and mouthwash,” Balint said. “The fluoride residue found in walnuts is a drop in the bucket but nevertheless it gets attention.”
The walnut leader believes the walnut industry will be allowed to continue sulfuryl fluoride use.
Balint has also worked hard to maintain Section 18 emergency use of the fungicide Manzate (mancozeb) to fight walnut blight. The disease is caused by the combination of a virus, moisture, and temperature which can result in blanks plus dark, inedible nuts.
Several months ago, the Manzate manufacturer (DuPont) received a Section 3 exemption which allows the permanent Manzate label use for walnut blight.
The CWB spends about $1.5 million annually on walnut research, including work by the CWB’s four production research council working groups, all established in 2005. The groups focus on solutions in the fields of entomology, genetic improvement,
orchard management, and plant pathology.
IPM success recognized
This January, the entomology working group was awarded the California Department of Pesticide Regulation’s 2013 Integrated Pest Management Innovator Award.
The award is based on the CWB’s research and development of mating disruption using aerosol pheromones - instead of insecticides - to combat the worst pest threat of walnut – codling moth.
During the award ceremony, Balint said, “When we come together as an industry we are powerful at addressing real challenges that
produce far-reaching, sustainable benefits for all California walnut growers.”
Another CWB research project is focused on disease resistant rootstocks. While the Paradox rootstock is the walnut industry standard, Balint says several new hybrids are very promising.
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