October 17, 2012

Goin' nuts: Almond crop nears record

All those warm days in September paid off for one of California's signature crops. The almonds rolled in – plump, dry and on time.

All those warm days in September paid off for one of California's signature crops. The almonds rolled in – plump, dry and on time.

"We're having a great almond year – great from the standpoint that the weather's been very cooperative," said Dave Baker, director of member relations for almond cooperative Blue Diamond's 3,000-plus growers. "Overall, quality looks good, and harvest is right on target."

After pollination in late February and early March, almonds hang on the tree seven to eight months before harvest starts in late summer. By the end of October, this harvest will be complete.

"We're pretty much normal this harvest," Baker said. "We couldn't say that the last two years." Soggy springs and wet fall weather delayed the crop at both ends of the previous two seasons.

After the nuts are dried, hulling and shelling continues into January and February. That means there will be plenty of fresh almonds in stores and markets for holiday baking, gift-giving and everyday nibbling.

The one drawback of all that heat: The almonds lost some of their weight before harvest.

"The (September) heat wave reduced their moisture content," Baker explained. "The quality is still good, but that lower moisture content means we lost a lot of weight. Instead of another record crop of 2.1 billion pounds (as estimated), the total now will be in the 1.8 to 1.9 billion range."

That's still an amazing amount of almonds. California, the nation's only almond-producing state, grows more than 80 percent of the global supply. In the past decade, the state's crop has more than doubled.

"We grow most of the almonds for the world," said Daryl Brun, ranch manager for Cummings-Violich Inc., who oversees 500 acres of almonds in Colusa County. "In California, we have unique climate conditions. Most of the world can't grow them."

California gets some competition from Australia, Spain, Chile and the Mediterranean countries where almonds have grown for thousands of years. But California is a natural for almond success.

"It's our Mediterranean climate," Baker said. "They have to grow in this climate. They need a cold winter to produce fruit, a mild spring for bloom and a dry, hot summer. We have it all."

California almond growers are enjoying the global boom, pushed in part by more almond products such as almond flour, almond butter and almond milk.

Said Baker, "Worldwide consumption is growing by leaps and bounds. People were afraid we couldn't sell a 300 million-pound crop. Now, we're pushing over 2 billion."

"It's a crop with demand up worldwide," Brun said. "It's a nutritious product, excellent tasting, enjoyed by many cultures worldwide. It's exciting to be part of an industry with such a bright future."

Brun's orchards wrapped up harvest in early October – "23 days ahead of last year," he noted.

To Brun, almonds taste best fresh.

"I'm a big fan of almonds; all growers are," he said. "For me, I like them raw, fresh out of the shell. That's when they're most tasty. But honey-roasted almonds are excellent, too."

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