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Almond growers relieved about smaller crop estimate

Mettler almond grower Kyle McClintock isn't trying to be ironic when he speaks optimistically about the recent drought conditions that have forced others in the business to uproot entire orchards for lack of irrigation water.

As painful as the situation is, it's coincided with a jump in exports and led to an uptick in prices such that growers like him aren't losing money on their crop like last year — or not as much money, anyway.

"When supply is down and demand is up, the price always goes up," McClintock said, "and that's welcome news to the growers."

Spirits are rising across the almond industry with new data suggesting a glum crop assessment released earlier in the year was either overstated or, as some suspect, flat-out wrong.

LATEST NUMBERS

The California Almond Objective Measurement Report published last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture-National Agricultural Statistics Service predicted this year's crop will weigh in at 2.8 billion pounds, or 10 percent less than last year's record.

Based on actual counts of nuts in sample trees, the forecast came in 13 percent below the so-called subjective estimate released in May, which at the time was widely doubted. Now that firmer numbers are out, the almond industry is letting out a collective sigh of relief.

Adding to the sunny outlook are recent figures showing a 30 percent jump in overseas shipments and a more than 4 percent increase in domestic deliveries. This year's harvest is weeks away for most growers and already many are in a great mood.

"We're in a good position," Kern County almond grower Holly King said. "We've sold a lot of nuts this year."

Almonds are a big deal in Kern, California's leading producer of the nut. It was the county's top-grossing crop in 2019 — ahead of table grapes, citrus and pistachios, in that order — at $1.6 billion in revenue to farmers.

The recent report was especially welcome because there hasn't been a lot of good news for almond growers lately.

In addition to shrinking water deliveries and sluggishly low prices, there have been retaliatory tariffs that continue to linger, upcoming restrictions on the use of local groundwater, port congestion and, in spite of it all, planted acreage expanding as much as 6 percent per year.

NEW MARKETS

But if it looks like luck is turning things around, there's another side of it: The industry has been working behind the scenes for years to find new customers across the globe. People in the business say those efforts are paying off big-time.

King noted exports to China were up more than 68 percent year over year through June, while the corresponding increase in India was 45 percent.

"We've done a really good job as an industry building demand for almonds," she said, "and we continue to do that."

The president and CEO of the Almond Board of California, Richard Waycott, credited 30 years of work the industry has put in to open new markets overseas. What it's done is persuade international consumers who hadn't paid much attention previously to now look to almonds for snacking and cooking needs, he said.

Those efforts have not only helped compensate for sales lost to tariffs, but also absorbed extra inventories from years like the 2019-2020 record crop. By his reckoning, there's plenty of room to grow because none of the growing Asian and European markets have reached what he considers full maturity.

Expectations within the industry are that the industry will continue to grow in size, albeit at a slower pace. While some growers have removed their orchards in favor of other crops, Waycott said, institutional investors who have poured money into almonds in recent years are by and large are sticking with the nut "as long as we can make the numbers work."

TEMPERED OPTIMISM

The almond board's chairman, Arvin-area grower Kent Stenderup, added a measure of realism amid all the optimism. He noted that along Interstate 5 through the Central Valley, hundreds of acres have been cleared where earlier this year bees were pollinating almond trees, leading him to guess last year's crop-size record won't be broken for a while.

Also, the drought has resulted in somewhat smaller almonds. Stenderup noted this month's objective estimate pegged the average nut set per tree, 4,619, is down 18 percent from last year's crop, and the average kernel weight across varieties is down 3 percent year over year at 1.46 grams.

What's more, the objective estimate is just that, he said: an estimate. "We won't know until we have the nuts in the barn."

Still, with prices this year up noticeably, growers can finally break even again, McKittrick-area almond grower Don Davis said. His main concern was that some farmers don't have access to canal water and groundwater pumps like he does, and so they won't be able to see the full benefit.

"I feel for the farmers who are suffering in this drought because this reduction may be because people without canal water or without pumps are losing their crop," he said.