How big will Valley almond crop be this year? And why is USDA estimate kept secret?

·3 min read

A federal agency on Friday projected a drop in the California almond crop for the third straight year, not the worst news for an industry dealing with low prices.

The 2023 harvest should come in around 2.5 billion pounds, the National Agricultural Statistics Service said.

The estimate is closely watched because the state grows about 80% of the world’s almonds. Buyers use them in baked goods, cereal, candy, beverages and many other items.

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A record crop of 3.12 billion pounds in 2020 led to grower prices dropping below $2 a pound. Industry experts say that is roughly the break-even point for covering farming costs.

NASS reported that the average price went from $2.45 in 2019 to $1.71 in 2020. The 2021 harvest was about 2.93 billion pounds at $1.86 per pound. Last year, the orchards yielded about 2.57 billion pounds at $1.40 a pound.

The industry also had to deal with tariffs in some of the large Asian markets and a shortage of shipping capacity at ports amid COVID-19.

NASS releases the estimate at a specific time so no growers, processors or buyers get an unfair advantage. It used to be at the stroke of noon at the Almond Board of California offices atop the DoubleTree Hotel in downtown Modesto. Now, it’s online at 9 a.m.

Almonds set on a tree in Modesto, Calif., Friday, May 12, 2023.
Almonds set on a tree in Modesto, Calif., Friday, May 12, 2023.

Friday’s projection was based on a telephone survey of 500 growers between April 19 and May 6. They were asked how their almonds were faring early in the growing season. The outer hulls already have reached full size, but the kernels need several months to develop flavor.

A second report on July 7 will use actual measurements of nuts from nearly 1,000 orchards, done by the NASS staff. The harvest will run from August to October.

The initial report said the crop got off to a rough start in February due to stormy weather for pollinating bees. March brought even more trouble.

Almond trees blossom in Salina, Calif., Thursday, March 2, 2023.
Almond trees blossom in Salina, Calif., Thursday, March 2, 2023.
Almond trees in full bloom on Carver Road in Modesto, Calif., Saturday, March 4, 2023.
Almond trees in full bloom on Carver Road in Modesto, Calif., Saturday, March 4, 2023.

“There were reports of downed trees due to high winds and over-saturated soil,” the report said. “Yields are expected to be the lowest in years, with variation observed across varieties and orchard locations.”

NASS said growers are still checking for plant diseases that tend to increase with rain. And it stated the obvious after three years of drought: “Water availability is not a major concern this year.”

The lower estimate was not a surprise given the weather, said Richard Waycott, president and CEO of the Almond Board, in a news release.

“In the past three years, growers have faced high costs, shipping issues, drought and more,” he said. “But the water picture is better, at least for this year, shipping continues at record levels and global demand continues to grow.”

Almonds brought about $5.03 billion in gross income to the state’s growers in 2021, the California Department of Food and Agriculture reported. They ranked third after milk, at $7.57 billion, and grapes, at $5.23 billion.

Virtually all of California’s almonds grow in the Central Valley, where the industry employs several thousand people in farming and processing.

Almond trees in full bloom in an orchard in Ceres, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023.
Almond trees in full bloom in an orchard in Ceres, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023.
Almond trees in full bloom on Carver Road in Modesto, Calif., Saturday, March 4, 2023.
Almond trees in full bloom on Carver Road in Modesto, Calif., Saturday, March 4, 2023.