Agriculture

Almond farmers unshaken by lower prices, cooling markets amid bumper crop

San Joaquin Valley almond growers harvest what is expected to be another record crop

Workers mechanically sweep millions of tons of nuts off the orchard floor.
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Workers mechanically sweep millions of tons of nuts off the orchard floor.

Almond harvest has begun in the San Joaquin Valley and with it comes the hope of better prices, expanding markets and stronger consumer demand.

This year, the industry will need all the help it can get.

Demand has cooled in markets like China where the nuts were a hot commodity. Prices plummeted to half of the $5 a pound the nuts fetched last year. Now, with harvest under way, growers could be looking at a bumper crop.

If the estimate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture holds true, California’s almond growers will surpass 2 billion pounds for the first time since 2013.

That’s a lot of nuts. And one of the reasons why almonds have become one of the state’s most dominant crops. In Fresno County alone – one of the state’s top almond-growing regions – the nuts were valued at more than a $1 billion.

We keep dreaming about those high prices.

Tom Rogers, Madera County grower

Despite the challenges, growers remain optimistic that they can develop new products and find new markets to ensure almonds keep flying off the store shelves as fast as they are shaken off the trees.

This time of year, growers and their crews are busy in the Valley’s vast orchards. Nuts are shaken off the tree by machines, lined up in rows to dry for several days and then scooped up and trucked to a facility for hulling.

With more than 900,000 acres of almonds in production statewide, harvest will take nearly three months.

Almond farmer Tom Rogers of Madera has just started shaking his trees and is pleased with his yields so far. He jokes that he is always optimistic at the start of the season.

“If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be in farming,” he said.

Farmers, like Rogers, know the challenges that lie ahead, including securing an adequate water supply, producing larger crops and keeping consumption growing.

About 80 percent of the world’s almond supply comes out of the San Joaquin Valley, and almonds have been the fastest-growing crop in the state. Growers have abandoned certain crops like grapes to plant the higher value nut. Others have added almonds to their diversified farming operations.

For several years, growers had an especially good run, especially in export markets like China where demand was red hot. But when nut prices climbed too high, as they did early last year, buyers backed off and the price tumbled from nearly $5 a pound to half that amount.

“We keep dreaming about those high prices,” Rogers says. “But things have settled down.”

After surviving several years of drought, Rogers and many other almond growers are also dealing with a new reality – farming with limited water supplies. He has deployed several water saving tools on his farm, including moisture sensors that helped him cut his water use by 25 percent.

“Water is like any other resource – when you get a lot, you get careless,” he said. “And when it is short, you start learning about what you need to grow your crop.”

Almond farmer Alison Nagatani said that despite the drop in prices, growers still are in relatively good shape. She farms about 400 acres in Tulare County and has replaced about 23 acres of aging trees with newer trees. She also remains bullish on almonds.

“Things had been really good for almond growers,” Nagatani said. “I have faith that we can continue to grow and still maintain demand.”

To keep prices stable and even nudge them a little higher, Richard Waycott, chief executive officer of the Almond Board of California, said his marketing team is planning to target countries, including France, Germany, Japan and Mexico.

“We have never had any activity in Mexico, and it is a large and growing market,” Waycott said.

The almond board, an industry-funded organization, also is trying to increase consumption in Canada.

“We have lots of things in the hopper because we expect our crop sizes to continue growing,” Waycott said. “And we want to get ahead of that growth.”

The demand is still there, and I don’t see it dropping.

P.J. Sandhu, who heads Crown Nut Company in Tracy

Waycott estimates that by the end of the decade, growers will produce up to 2.5 billion pounds.

Farmer P.J. Sandhu, who heads Crown Nut Co. in Tracy, is confident the industry can handle a larger crop. Crown Nut is a grower and processor farming about 11,000 acres in the North Valley.

“The demand is still there, and I don’t see it dropping,” Sandhu said. “We just have to come up with products that consumers like.”

To make that happen, Sandhu’s company has begun creating new products for the retail market.

Sandhu’s family-run operation recently introduced a line of seasoned nuts at the Fresno Food Expo. He was among several nut companies debuting new almond products.

Now, along with shipping almonds in bulk to foreign and domestic customers, they have developed a line of seasoned almonds in honey barbecue, maple bacon and sriracha flavors.

“What is interesting is that our export customers have been the ones asking us for these kinds of different products,” Sandhu said.

Waycott agrees that foreign markets have become more attractive for almond products, including almond milk, almond butter and recently almond flour.

“This is a product that seems to be reinventing itself,” Waycott said. “And the demand continues to increase.”

Robert Rodriguez: 559-441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob

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