California’s walnut growers look to reap a crop of record proportions

California’s walnut growers look to reap a crop of record proportions

“Judging by early sales and assuming no big changes in supply and demand, prices should be on the high side of that range,” Ron Martella says. “But, there’s a whole marketing season to go. With no more than about half the crop sold by now, there are a lot more nuts to be sold.”

About a month after California’s 2014 walnut harvest kicked into high gear, growers were nearing the finish line. At the same time, they were enjoying the highest ever prices for a crop that looks to be their largest ever.

Last year at this time, growers were getting $1.95 to $2.04 per pound (in-shell) for top-quality Chandlers, reports veteran Stanislaus County grower, Ron Martella, Hughson, Calif. He and his family are partners in Ronald Martella Farms, which grows 800 acres of walnuts, and Grower Direct Nut Co., Inc., which buys, processes and sells walnuts.

By the time the books are closed on marketing the 2014 crop, Martella expects the grower price for the Chandler variety, along with Tulare and Howard walnuts, California’s two other major varieties, to be in the $2.00 to $2.10 range, depending on quality.

“Judging by early sales and assuming no big changes in supply and demand, prices should be on the high side of that range,” he says. “But, there’s a whole marketing season to go. With no more than about half the crop sold by now, there are a lot more nuts to be sold.”

In fact, results of the 2014 Walnut Objective Survey, released by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service on Sept. 5, predicts California’s walnut production this year will total a record 545,000 tons (in-shell). Aided by this year’s mild weather, that’s 11 percent more than the 492,000 tons the state’s growers produced in 2013.

“We need a big crop to fill the pipeline because it was just about empty when this year’s harvest started,” Martella says.

Most California growers are in areas that had adequate supplies of water for their trees this year, he notes. Consequently, he doesn’t expect the drought had much impact on production this year,

“The dry weather has made it more difficult to shake off the nuts,” Martella says. “A lot of growers have been shaking their trees twice.”

The quality of this crop is off from last year, Martella reports.

From what he’s seen and heard, tree yields for most growers have been about average. Consequently, Martella doubts the size of this year’s crop will exceed the Objective Survey forecast. It could even end up as much as 5 percent smaller.

“Estimated meat yields are down about 1 percent to 2 percent from last year,” he says. “That will affect supplies. The shells seem to be a little thicker and the nuts are harder to crack out.”

Increased numbers of shriveled nuts reflects this year’s heavier crop, Martella notes. Early processing showed damage from codling moth and navel orangeworm averaging about 3 percent to 4 percent. However, in some cases, reject levels for insect damage reached as high as about 20 percent, Martella reports.

All in all, he rates 2014 as a very good year for California’s walnut growers.

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