Perhaps it was a combination of the best of times and worst of times that drew record attendance to this year’s almond conference in Sacramento.
Whether optimistic or concerned about the state of the California almond industry in the wake of several years of drought, other challenges and even success stories, more than 3,500 people were on hand to hear both sides of the story about the state’s storied nut crop.
The Almond Board of California (ABC) says 3,501 people attended this year’s industry conference in downtown Sacramento, a 16 percent increase over last year’s attendance, which at the time was also a record.
As California’s drought and its associated water issues continue to be on the mind of growers, it wasn’t just regulatory, pollinator and irrigation issues that were popular topics at the conference as side-bar conversations could be heard talking a host of other issues.
Peppered between discussions on mainstay topics like marketing and research programs, social media was a popular topic, filling meeting rooms to capacity with growers and others to hear how the almond industry is being positioned in cyberspace.
Folks heard from almond growers like Joe Del Bosque, who farms diversified crops in the Los Banos and Firebaugh area, Kern County grower Jenny Holtermann and Stanislaus County farmer Daniel Bays on how they use social media and have made themselves available to professional media outlets in an attempt to tell a more complete and accurate story about the almond.
Each shared their own methods of communicating with the public about the crops they grow, highlighting what they’ve learned since taking to social media and making themselves available to the working press.
Of the three Del Bosque is well-known for who he hosted on his farm in early 2014.
Upon creating his Twitter account in early 2014 – Del Bosque already had a website and Facebook presence aimed at the customers of products like the organic and conventional melons he grows – Del Bosque used his very first 140-character allotment to invite President Obama to his farm after reading that the President would be traveling to Fresno in February of that year.
The response to Del Bosque’s request was as quick as it was surprising. Media outlets began calling Del Bosque almost immediately after the tweet went live, asking if the President had responded and what that response was.
“By the end of the day CBS Evening News had called me to see if he was coming to my farm,” Del Bosque said.
The immediate response by local and national media, plus the attention garnered when the President actually did visit Del Bosque’s farm, thrust the Valley farmer into a spotlight that he has willingly stepped into, not for his own press and success, but to advance agricultural issues in California.
Since that day in early 2014 Del Bosque has served as a spokesman for California agriculture, primarily sharing stories of the human toil and impacts caused by regulatory refusals to deliver surface water to growers in the state.
Daniel Bays is a fifth-generation diversified grower in western Stanislaus County. While he’s not engaged in typical social media platforms at this time his focus has been developing relationships with professional reporters to tell his story.
In one of the more noteworthy interviews Bays recalls, he says a reporter from Esquire Magazine spent a week with him and his family on their ranch, interviewing them for a lengthy story that appeared in a Feb. 2015 issue of the publication.
Stacey Humble, vice president of global marketing for the Almond Board, says the focus of efforts like this is to help people better understand almond farmers and the edible nut the organization works hard to promote.
“We know that the story of the almond is most powerful when shared by industry members,” she said. “Consumers want to talk to people who are growing their food.”
State of the Industry
This year’s 30,000-foot overview of the almond industry was provided in a tag-team approach by the organization’s two top senior leaders. Almond Board Chairman Mike Mason and the organization’s chief executive, President Richard Waycott, painted a generally optimistic picture of an industry while conceding that there were challenges both at the grower level and board level.
Though almond growers still enjoy profitable returns, prices in the weeks leading up to the annual meeting slipped. According to one industry representative, buyers realized they were sitting on almonds they had previously purchased at a higher price and were reluctant to purchase more, opting instead to try to clear inventories.
A reflection of this can be seen in the November almond position report, which shows total shipments by handlers down over 16 percent from the previous year, which had its own challenges related to the West Coast ports strike.
Mason and Waycott talked in their annual “state of the industry” presentation about how the Almond Board, in spite of challenges faced during the year, “weathered the storms of 2015 in pretty good shape,” in part by continuing the organization’s focus on research and the educational and promotional activities that has been a mainstay of industry efforts to keep demand ahead of supply.
Total almond acreage surpassed one million in California in the 2013/14 crop year as bearing acres reached 870,000 and non-bearing acres reached their highest-ever at 150,000. Bearing acres in 2015 rose to 890,000. Figures for non-bearing and new acres planted in 2015 were not available from the Almond Board at deadline.
Since 2010 bearing acreage has grown 2-4 percent on an annual basis. The biggest increase since the 2006 crop year was seen in 2008 when bearing acreage jumped almost 11 percent to 710,000 acres.
New plantings have varied by year as well. Statistics in the Almond Board’s Almond Almanac going back to the 2004/05 crop year show new plantings were the heaviest in 2005/06 with over 34,000 acres of trees planted on an average of 104 trees per acre.
Since then tree densities per acre have increased to 114 as new plantings have slowed to less than 20,000 acres per year. Figures for 2015 are not yet available.
Good climate for almonds
Waycott points to California’s climate as the primary factor almonds do well in the Golden State.
“Almonds have to be grown in California,” Waycott said. “Where else could they grow on a scale similar to what we have established here?”
Mason pointed to the economics of almonds as the commodity has become the highest-valued single-crop in the state on fewer acres than alfalfa, which in 2014 was largest crop by acreage in California at over 1.3 million.
The relative value of all tree nuts when compared to acres planted also makes tree nuts attractive, Mason said.
California almond growers in 2014 were paid over $5.8 billion in gross receipts on 870,000 acres of almonds. By comparison, grape growers were paid over $5.2 billion on 865,000 acres of grapes in the state. The same year hay growers were paid about $1.7 billion on over 1.3 million acres of hay, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Waycott cited a downward trend in crop acreages across the state in commodities such as hay, wheat, corn, rice and cotton to illustrate how California’s shift to permanent crops in general, and almonds specifically, might continue.
“Many crops that are grown in California could effectively be grown in other states,” Waycott said.
Mason points to technological advancements in the past two or three decades that have helped boost the almond industry to what it is today. He used the example of his own Shafter-based packing plant, Supreme Almonds of California, in his illustration.
“Twenty-five years ago we had zero electronics (in our own business),” Mason said. “Today, as is the case with most handlers, we have multiple electronic sorters, X-ray machines, metal detectors and laser technology, thereby lessening the need for table pickers and other manual labor.”
Mason also pointed out the industry’s acceptance of water-thrifty technology and other efficiencies that helped boost average yields to about 2,500 pounds per acre today while using 33 percent less water.
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