The annual shaking of the almond trees has begun as local growers start harvesting a crop that could be especially promising this year for Kern County.
A recent federal estimate predicted California's 2019 almond harvest could fall 3.5 percent short of last year's total. It reflected concerns that cold, wet conditions during the almond bloom appeared to have limited bees' pollination activity.
But industry insiders continue to question the 2.3 billion-pound forecast, released in early July by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They see this year's total reaching as high as 2.5 billion pounds.
Whose forecast is more accurate could make a big difference in local agriculture revenues. If, indeed, a supply shortage develops, then prices will likely rise — and anyone with product to sell stands to benefit.
Kern may be in a particularly good position to cash in if there is a shortfall. That's because the county comprises the southernmost, warmest region of California's almond-growing acreage, which extends through much of the Central Valley.
"The farther south, the better the crop. The farther north, the worse the crop,” Wasco almond grower Terry Nachtigall said Tuesday.
Nachtigall said he plans to start the mechanized shaking of his orchards on Wednesday: A machine will rattle his trees so nuts fall to the ground, where they will be vacuumed up and processed. He noted other local growers began the process days ago on their earliest-producing trees.
He's hoping that, if there is a supply shortage, it will raise prices for the nut. He said a processing company he works with informed him of expectations for a price increase of 40 to 50 cents per pound, which would increase costs for consumers but raise his own revenues as much as 20 percent.
"It just breaks my heart if I got 50 cents a pound more," he said jokingly.
But he acknowledged it's hard to say how likely it is that the shortage will materialize.
"Until we get it out of the fields and start looking at how many (almonds) we got, you really don't know," he said.
Almonds are Kern's second top-grossing crop, according to the most recent county records. It brought in $1.26 billion in 2017, putting the nut in second place locally behind table grapes' $1.75 billion.