California almond growers are on track to outdo themselves again this year, as record investment in acreage and surprisingly little weather damage raise expectations the state will see its largest-ever harvest this fall.

New projections from the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggest growers statewide will combine for 2.45 billion pounds of almond meat in 2018, almost 8 percent more than 2017. If the estimate holds up, California will have doubled its production of the nut during the last 12 years.

The timing of the surge may not be ideal, in that prices paid to growers have come way down since peaking at $4 per pound in 2014. That year, California's almond production value totaled $7.4 billion — almost one-third more than last year, when per-pound prices were $2.53, according to USDA data.

Industry observers expect prices to drop further as a result of China's recent move to increase its U.S. almond tariffs to 50 percent in retaliation for tariffs the Trump administration levied as a way of pressuring China to give up allegedly unfair trade practices.

After grapes, almonds were Kern's second most lucrative crop in 2016, the most recent year for which data are available. While local growers' export destinations were not available, officials say farmers in the county ship more frequently to China than to any other country.

Expectations for a record harvest come as especially good news in light of challenging weather. Freezes interrupted the almond bloom this year, hitting younger trees hardest. Worries were compounded in the spring as weather varied more than usual, according to the USDA, which added that mites and disease have presented little trouble this year.

In the San Joaquin Valley, the number of nuts produced per almond tree rose slightly year over year to reach 5,783. That was 21 percent fewer than in 2011.

The size of almond nuts grown in California this year is down slightly from 2017 but has increased by 14 percent since 2013.

The number of nut-bearing almond acres in California — 1.07 million — has never been higher. That figure has doubled in size in the last 10 years. During the same period, the number of trees planted per acre has increased 11 percent to 119.

Kern County almond grower Holly King, who serves as chairwoman of the Almond Board of California, welcomed expectations 2018 will be a "milestone" year for the nut.

"However, it is not just about the number of acres," she said in a news release by the board. "It's also about growing more almonds per acre. As we have grown in size, we have continued to find ways to grow almonds more efficiently, using fewer resources and leaving a smaller footprint per nut."


John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf.

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