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Shipping trouble hangs over almond growers

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In this November file photo, almonds grow in Kyle McClintock's orchard in Mettler.

Now that snow is piled high on the Sierra Nevada, water concerns appear to have been overtaken by logistical headaches as the top worry facing Kern County almond growers this year.

People in the industry say port congestion has combined with a shortage of truck drivers and other supply-chain problems to frustrate local farmers and processors working to get their product to overseas consumers who, as a group, account for more than two-thirds of the state's almond crop.

Here's the unfortunate irony: The latest official estimates say California's 2021 almond crop was about 10 percent smaller in the crop year that ended Aug. 1 as compared with 12 months earlier. That decrease in volume would normally suggest prices paid to growers would be up.

But before nut farmers can get paid, shipments need to arrive at their destination. The latest numbers suggest that's not happening to the degree it was a year before. Instead, domestic and export deliveries are down — and so are prices.

Logistical problems have been blamed for a lull in prices paid to farmers since late summer. Unfortunately, signs of improvement are scarce.

"Prices were strong in August, but shipping delays and some lackluster buying has weighed down pricing," said David Magaña, vice president and senior analyst at RaboResearch Food & Agribusiness, said Monday.

Rabobank reported in November that global container prices have increased more than 800 percent since the start of the pandemic amid record demand, mass cancellations of cargo ships and an imbalance in shipping container distribution. Port congestion and closures, not to mention a driver shortage, also contributed to the problem, according to the report, titled "Tree Nut and Fruit Trade From the Americas Challenged by Logistic Bottlenecks."

Since June, the company's ag research arm said, the number of ships at anchor waiting to be offloaded reached new highs because of port congestion. The problem was reported to be worst at U.S. West Coast ports.

There has been progress in terms of extended operating hours at ports, higher fines for late pickup and new investment in port infrastructure. But as RaboResearch noted, "There seem to be no quick fixes."

Scheduling a ship to carry nuts to buyers in Asia remains dicey. RaboResearch estimated the number of containers missing their scheduled sailing dates is up about 10 percent year over year. Factoring in a concurrent shortage of labor, it stated in November, "We expect that it will take nine to 12 months to resolve port congestion and schedule reliability."

That month, domestic shipments of California almonds were down almost 4 percent year over year, while exports were off more than 19 percent.

"As global logistics challenges will likely remain for most of 2022, and probably even more so for specific routes, planning ahead will be critical," RaboResearch advised.

CEO Richard Waycott of the Almond Board of California said Monday he is cautiously optimistic the shipping situation is gradually returning to normal — a good thing not just for exports, he said, but also for growers trying to get soil amendments and other farming supplies that are badly missed when they arrive late.

Waycott was pleased to report shipping capacity is returning to the Port of Oakland, which he noted accounts for 80 percent of California almond exports. Even so, confusion created by ports opening and closing, as well as pandemic-related lockdowns in some countries, have meant that "buyers are reluctant to make big commitments."

He noted as well that public and private officials have done a lot of work to encourage overseas carriers to "be more reasonable" about picking up U.S. exports before returning to Asia empty-handed after making deliveries to the West Coast.

Waycott predicted prices will rebound before long, but that in the meantime, there's a chance almond shippers might miss seasonal consumption patterns in overseas markets.

He did have some good news, though. The almond board has struck a deal to promote the nut as part of a new Marvel Studios Thor movie set for release this summer.

But no, he said, the movie probably won't feature Thor eating almonds.

"Whether Thor pops an almond in his mouth or not, we don't have that kind of influence," Waycott said. "We don't have that kind of money, either."