Three-week delays not uncommon for nut crops this year

10/11/2011 01:00:00 PM
Dan Gailbraith

Unlike some commodities earlier this year, unusual weather hasn’t decimated most nut crops in the U.S., but it has delayed development and harvest in many growing regions by as much as three to four weeks.

Record crops are anticipated for almond and walnut growers in California. Oregon hazelnut growers also report a strong showing, with a 41,000-ton crop predicted. Normal yields are usually in the 35,000-ton range.

Texas nut growers have not been as lucky. A year-long drought continues to plague the state, which is normally the second-largest producer of pecans. Texas pecan yields are projected to be down by 50% this season. The peanut crop in Texas is also suffering, with as much as half of it rated poor to very poor.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service predicts the California almond harvest will be another record setter at 975,000 tons. That’s 20% more than the record crop in 2010. The state is estimated to produce about 80% of the world’s almonds

Growers started bringing in the earliest of the almond varieties, the nonpareils, in the third week of August. Reports from the USDA said there was a prolonged blossom, which will likely cause an overlap in harvest of the nonpareils with the mission and California varieties.

Joe Bauer, director at Stapleton-Spence Packing Co., said the San Jose, Calif., company had been handling almonds for a few weeks as of Sept. 22. The nuts were looking fine, he said.

Bauer and Paul DeFranco, co-owner of Defranco & Sons, Los Angeles, said the USDA’s prediction of a record year for almonds will prove true. They said they expect prices to remain steady despite the high volumes.

“There is tremendous demand for nuts for exporting, especially in the Asian world. They’re paying prices higher than the growers are asking,” said DeFranco, who distributes nuts under the Sunripe brand.

A double whammy of weather and decreased acreage generated pitiful peanut predictions for the 2011 harvest across the Southeast.

Tyron Spearman, executive secretary of the National Peanut Buying Points Association, Tifton, Ga., said the good news is that peanut consumption is up, mostly because of use in snacks and candy in the U.S. and strong export demand. He said exports overall are up 9.6% compared to 2010, with shipments to Germany up 41%.

“I think that’s partly because of a lack of shipments from China,” Spearman said.

Normally U.S. peanut growers send about 25% of their harvest overseas. Spearman said he expects that number to remain steady despite a 13% reduction in acreage and the USDA’s projection of 17% fewer peanuts to harvest this year.

“We lost some acreage to cotton when the price of it went up,” Spearman said. “Now with the dry conditions this year we are looking at a significant decrease in overall yields.”

In Georgia, where about half of the U.S. peanuts are grown, 2011 marked the hottest summer on record. Cooler temperatures late in August and a bit of rain helped, but the best-looking peanuts in Georgia are in irrigated fields.

Texas is a completely different story. The USDA crop estimate issued Sept. 1 included a notation that 50% of the Lone Star State’s peanuts are rated poor to very poor this year, compared to only 1% in those rating categories last year.

“The peanut plant grows well in dry conditions, but not in a desert,” Spearman said.

On Sept. 19 shelled peanuts for retail were at $1.05 per pound, compared to 46.5 cents per pound on that date in 2010. In light of those prices and the anticipated of the short supply, J.M. Smucker, producer of Jif peanut butter, announced it would be increasing its retail prices by 30% in November.

The USDA predicts 2011 peanut production to be 1.7 million tons, compared to 2 million tons in 2010 and 1.8 tons in 2009.

There won’t be a record crop of pecans this year, especially for Texas growers hit by severe drought conditions. But Georgia, the country’s No. 1 producing state, got just enough rain at the right times to boost yields above the 90 million pounds recorded for the 2009 on-year.

“We’re looking at about 100 million pounds,” said Duke Lane Jr., president of the Georgia Pecan Growers Association and owner of about 3,000 acres of pecan trees at Lane Orchards near Fort Valley, Ga.

“We got about 3 to 4 inches of rain last night (Sept. 22) and that’s really going to help the nuts ripen and open up.”

In the fourth week of September growers of the pawnee variety had already begun harvest in Georgia, and Lane predicted other varieties would be ready a week to 10 days earlier than the traditional mid-October harvest time.

The USDA isn’t scheduled to publish its pecan report until mid-October, but Texas growers already know it won’t have much good news for them.

The Texas Pecan Growers’ Association predicts the 2011-12 crop will be 35 million to 40 million pounds. That’s about half of last year’s bumper crop, according to Cindy Wise, association executive vice president. Wise said a severe freeze and some record low temperatures stressed many trees. The continuing drought finished the job.

Limited supplies will mean growers will probably enjoy another record year for prices, though, Lane said.

“I hate to profit because of other farmers’ bad fortune, but with fewer nuts coming out of Texas and the healthy export market I expect this could be even better than last year for our prices,” Lane said.

As of late September, Lane said he knew of growers who had already signed contracts for $3 per pound. About half of Georgia’s crop is exported, with China being the biggest buyer. Chinese buyers are shaking up the market by personally visiting individual growers and contracting for entire harvests.

California growers won’t be able to make up for the down year in Texas, but the Visalia-based California Pecan Growers Association forecast is for 4.5 million pounds, which would move the state up to the No. 8 position among the pecan prodcers. In 2009, the last on-year, California growers produced 3.9 million pounds.

By Sept. 23, the pistachio harvest in California was at its peak – about two weeks later than usual. The state produces 98.5% of the U.S. crop. The U.S. is the second largest producer worldwide behind Iran.

Richard Matoian, executive director of the American Pistachio Association, formerly the Western Pistachio Association, said even though this is technically an off-year for the green nuts, growers are bringing in exceptional yields. Early this year predictions for the California crop were in the 325 million- to 350 million-pound range, but in late September Matoian said it was looking more like 400 million to 450 million pounds would be harvested.

The best growing season in 30 years that started with a cold winter and a wet, cool spring was a key factor for the 2011 crop. The weather supported a good bloom and the development of large nuts.

But, a huge increase in productive acreage is the primary variable in the volume equation. Matoian said 10,000 to 12,000 acres came into production this year as trees matured.

“We will double the 2009 production by 2017 because of the new acres coming in,” Matoian said, adding that about 60,000 acres are expected to mature in the next three years.

The record crop in 2009 was 528 million pounds from about 137,000 acres, according to the USDA. It was worth $1.16 billion, or $2.22 a pound. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service,that was almost double the 2008 and 2009 crop values.

Matoian said past year prices have not varied more than 4%, partly because of high demand from China.

“Pistachios buck the trend of lower prices with larger supplies,” he said.

Compared to California, pistachio acres in the next two top-producing states of Arizona and New Mexico are minimal at 1,500 and 767 respectively, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture. But growers in those states enjoy the same price stability and demand, making their efforts profitable.

Hazelnut growers in Oregon were still playing the waiting game in late September.

Polly Owen, manager of the Oregon Hazelnut Marketing Board said harvest could be delayed until the second week of October because of weather conditions this year.

With Oregon producing 99% of the U.S. crop, that means retailers across the country will have to wait for fresh filberts, also known as hazelnuts, this fall.

“The crop is really slow this year,” said grower John Sullivan, Vida, Ore. “I usually pick two or three times a season, with the first harvest starting around Oct. 1. This year we won’t start until Oct. 15 at the earliest.”

Once harvest does begin, good yields are predicted.

Owen said 41,000 tons are expected in this on-year, compared to the normal expectation of 35,000 tons. Even in the off-year of 2010 the crop beat predictions. Last year the USDA projected a 27,000-ton crop, but growers brought in 33,000 tons.

Those numbers add up to good revenue for the 600 growers and 20 processors under the Oregon Hazelnut Marketing Board’s umbrella, who like others in the U.S. tree nut industry are enjoying high demand from the international market. About 65% of U.S. hazelnuts are going to China.

Both Sullivan and Owen said a recall of in-shell hazelnuts in March because of possible E. coli contamination hadn’t seemed to hurt the industry. They said the timing of the recall, which came after the primary consumer buying period, and the rarity of such recalls for in-shell nuts worked to the industry’s advantage.

It’s an off-year for walnuts, but apparently no one told the trees in California. The National Agricultural Statistics Service  California field office official crop estimate, released Sept. 2, predicts a yield of 485,000 tons, slightly less than the record on-year 2010 crop of 503,000 tons.

Weather worked to the advantage of California walnut growers, who produce 99% of the U.S., crop and 78% of the world’s supply, according to the California Walnut Commission. About 40% of the crop stays in the U.S., where retailers and processors have increased use by 24% since 2002.

Charles Crain, commission chairman, said in early September the quality and size of the kernels were looking exceptional. He credited a mild spring and summer in walnut-growing regions for the condition of the 2011 crop. Like most other nuts, though, harvest was delayed at least two weeks this year because weather resulted in late development.

In late September at San Jose’s Stapleton-Spence Packing Co. director Joe Bauer had one word for walnuts this fall:  big. Bauer said the nuts were not only good size and quality, but the good prices in recent years had encouraged more growers to enter the category, which translates into more nuts to sell.

“We don’t know what the prices are going to be like yet this year,” Bauer said. “The late crop means late price estimates.”

Prices will likely remain good, according to the California Walnut Board, partly because of growing worldwide public awareness of the nutritional value of walnuts.

On Sept. 23 the board announced the American Heart Association had certified walnuts to carry its heart-check mark, signifying they meet nutritional standards set by the association.

In a news release announcing the designation, Michael Roizen, a doctor and the chairman of the Wellness Institute Cleveland Clinic, said walnuts are the only nut that provides a significant amount of the plant-based omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid.



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