Cathie Anderson

California walnut growers invest heavily to get their crop on your plate

Workers inspect walnuts inside the California Valley Nut Co. processing facility in Yuba City.
Workers inspect walnuts inside the California Valley Nut Co. processing facility in Yuba City.

California’s walnut growers are investing heavily to expand the sales of their crop right here at home, with roughly $25 million being spent on U.S. advertising, and Michelle McNeil Connelly is leading the charge.

Connelly officially became the executive director of the California Walnut Board and chief executive officer of the California Walnut Commission on Nov. 1. She takes the reins from Dennis Balint, who will remain on staff as a special assistant to Connelly until he retires in September.

“In the last crop year, we produced our first national advertising campaign,” Connelly said. “You may have seen the ads. They’re focused really around the versatility of heart-healthy California walnuts and so the ads show a lot of cooking. There’s a salmon and a pasta dish, for instance.”

The advertising campaign came, Connelly said, after growers found a mismatch between future production and the number of households buying walnuts.

“We knew we had more production coming online,” she said, “but when we actually assessed consumer households, we found that we were only in 22 percent of U.S. households. Just a small movement in the domestic market, in terms of household penetration, would mean a significant growth in volume for us.”

Connelly was the senior marketing director for the two walnut industry groups, and she had worked in various marketing roles at the organization for 13 years. But she had to compete for the position. Three other applicants wound up as finalists, before she got the top job.

Hanford walnut grower Bill Tos leads the budget and personnel committee for the two industry groups. In a news release, he said of Connelly: “Michelle has a broad and solid understanding of our industry, our issues and has helped build many of the industry’s markets, making her the ideal candidate to lead us into the next chapter.”

Connelly, a graduate of now-shuttered Loretto High School, noted that walnut sales have grown in some unexpected places since she joined the organizations in 2004. China, for example, has become the No. 2 foreign market, and sales also have exploded in Turkey, the No. 3 overseas market. The biggest foreign appetite for California walnuts comes from Germany.

Virtually all walnuts produced in the United States are grown in California, Connelly said. This year alone, production jumped 11 percent, she added, so it’s her job to ensure that growers have markets for all those nuts.

“When we asked consumers to tell us what would make them want to use more walnuts, they always say if they knew more ways to use them,” Connelly said. “That’s why our ads are very much focused on versatility and that’s actually true around the globe.”

She added: “We’re also working right now to do some pilot programs in four chains throughout the country, focusing on in-store activities – everything from demonstrations to recipe share cards – to test showcasing walnuts at those points of purchase. If those tests go well, we’ll expand that, so we can be very much visible at the retail level.”

Since walnuts are so often used in desserts, Connelly and her team also work with a consultant to develop ways to integrate the nuts into entrees and salads. They have come up with walnut-cauliflower tacos and walnut chorizo to put the nuts in the center of the plate, and on the drawing board are concepts for a walnut hummus and a mushroom-walnut burger.

Connelly noted that Silk recently introduced Nutchello, a rich dark chocolate and walnut beverage, and on a recent visit to Japan, she saw that Starbucks was offering maple walnut coffee blend for a limited period.

It will be crucial to expand uses, Connelly said, because walnut production is expanding quickly.

“As new acreage is going in, the trees are being planted differently,” she told me. “They’re able to optimize production on each tree. In some cases they can plant them closer together to maximize return on acreage and the yield per acre. So you’ve got more densely populated trees and our production is moving toward a varietal that is heavy-yielding.”

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee