Despite a finger-crossing start, the 2014 crop year ended surprisingly well for members of the Central California Almond Growers Association.
“We were relieved,” says Mike Kelley, president and CEO of the non-profit, grower-owned cooperative.
The largest almond sheller and huller in the world, CCAGA represents 400 members. Those members grow about 46,000 acres of almonds, in the area from Tulare north through the San Joaquin Valley to Chowchilla.
“Total production was down from the monster crops of the last few years,” Kelley says. “But, we’re very comfortable with where we ended up.”
For good reason. Earlier in the season, members feared production would be down considerably due to several drought-related events – stress on the trees, low-quality groundwater used for irrigation and pollination problems with the Nonpareil.
At one point, expected yields were appearing to be off 20 percent to 30 percent from usual.
“In some cases, production in one field might be half of normal, while yields in the adjacent field were just fine,” Kelley notes.
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Ironically, production in some drought-stricken blocks of Nonpareil was impaired by one of the season’s rare rains that fell during pollination. Poor timing of the last irrigation may also have hurt Nonpariel performance in some fields, he adds.
However, by the time the last bins of harvested nuts crossed the scales, the association’s total Nonpareil production was down no more than about 15 percent from a year earlier, while pollinator production was less than 2 percent from 2013 levels. Overall, the 2014 harvest tonnage came in about 7 percent short of the previous year’s total, Kelley reports.
At the same time, quality of the 2014 crop was on the high side.
One reason was the smaller crop. “When trees produce fewer nuts, nut size tends to increase,” Kelley explains. “We saw that this past season, especially with the Nonpareil.”
Unusually dry product during the early part of harvest led to some chipping of nuts during processing. Also, navel orangeworm damage was a little higher than usual, he notes.
“The season made for a more challenging shell out,” Kelley says. “The hulls were much bigger this year and, in some cases, they still contained a little moisture. That made it difficult to separate the hulls from the nuts. Also, the shells were really thin. That increased the risk of damaging the meats when we cracked the shells. However, by reducing the speed of our equipment we were able to make a good separation and ended up with a very good quality product when it was shipped to the members’ handlers.”
In processing each harvest, the CCAGA’s two facilities – the Kerman site, which includes three huller/sheller plants, and the Sanger site, which has one huller/sheller plant – end up with stockpiles of by-products: about 97,000 tons of hulls and 30,000 tons of shells. Sold to dairies in the valley through a brokerage association, the hulls are used as a carbohydrate source in feed rations and the shells are used as bedding for the cattle.