John Aguiar, director of sales for Mariani Nut Co., Winters, Calif., said the walnut industry is in the middle of a unique challenge.

In terms of supply, Aguiar expects a fairly normal crop. But in terms of demand, consumer interest is steadily increasing.

"From what we can tell, we are expecting a very similar size crop to last year, but like any other agriculture item, that"s only half the story. The quality will be determined in the next two to three weeks," he said of the upcoming harvest.

The company was set to begin harvesting toward the end of September or beginning of October.

The California Walnut Commission, Folsom, quotes the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service"s California Field Office annual crop estimate for walnuts to be 495,000 short tons.

The 2013 estimate is less than 1% shy of last year"s crop of 497,000 short tons.

"It"s looking to be a good crop so it"s very good news for the industry," said Jennifer Olmstead, domestic marketing director for the commission.

Walnut suppliers will have to manage their harvest to best meet the needs of the market.

"Our biggest challenge is that we are really seeing a strong push on the consumption of walnuts throughout the entire year, so, when you look at similar supply situations, you do see some pressure on market prices," Aguiar said.

The problem of having too much demand for your product is a good one to have, however.

"The popularity of walnuts is really expanding. It"s even surprising for us," Aguiar said.

"We"re seeing strong demand from consumers," Olmstead said.

Aguiar said the increase in interest for walnuts isn"t related to a specific push.

"You can"t point to a specific item," he said.

For one thing, consumers have started to serve walnuts all year, instead of just around the holidays, Aguiar said.

"We"re seeing an even bigger push in the summer months as people get really in tune with fresh produce," he said.

Aguiar said he has also started to see walnuts as having a stronger presence in the produce sections of retail locations.

"It"s more of a focal point in the produce aisle now. Before, it was relegated to the baking aisle," he said.

Of course, the baking aspect of walnut use is still centered primarily around the fall and winter holiday season, but the rest of the year means more use in fresher applications.

"We"re seeing a surprising push in the spring and summer as people change their eating habits with what"s fresh and what"s available," Aguiar said.

Health is also an important promotional tool.

Mariani recently started using the American Heart Association"s Heart-Check mark on its packaging.

"We"re expecting to see a big push with that," Aguiar said.