California's fall walnut crop is expected to be slightly smaller than
in 2012, despite a significant expansion of the state's orchards, federal farm
officials said Thursday.
But the chairman of a walnut processors' group expects wholesale prices to be 20 to 30 percent higher this year as the new harvest season is about to start.
That's important in San Joaquin County, which leads the state in walnut production and where it is the area's No. 2 cash crop. The 2012 bumper harvest was pegged at $457 million, second only to winegrapes in the county.
Statewide, the walnut crop is expected to total 495,000 tons, down less than 1 percent from 2012's 497,000 tons, the National Agricultural Statistics Service's regional office in Sacramento announced.
While that still would be the state's third-largest walnut crop, it is being outstripped by strong demand, particularly from China and other Asian countries.
As a result, Pete Turner, chairman of the California Independent Handlers Coalition, predicted prices "will be significantly higher for both in-shell and shelled walnuts."
The coalition will meet Tuesday in Stockton to set season-opening prices for export markets.
Turner said he expects to see increases of about 50 cents per pound for in-shell walnuts, which opened last year at $1.65 a pound, and 70 cents, plus or minus, for shelled nuts, "light halves and pieces," which were priced at $3.80 a pound last year.
The crop forecast is based on a survey of nearly 1,500 walnut trees statewide.
Federal experts found a "record low" average of 1,239 nuts per tree, down 10 percent from 2012's average of 1,375 walnuts per tree.
However, the walnuts were found to be above average in size, and officials estimated 255,000 acres would be harvested this fall, 10,000 acres, or 4 percent more, than the 245,000 acres in 2012.
"The kicker, of course, is the 10,000 acres we picked up," Turner said. Otherwise, he noted, "We'd have a short crop."
Christopher Locke, who raises 580 acres of walnuts along the Mokelumne River in Lockeford, wasn't surprised by estimates of a lighter crop.
"That's what we're seeing, too," he said Thursday.
"It's been a tough year. We had lots of insect problems, and the trees look pretty beat up," he said.
Still, Locke expects to harvest a decent crop.
"We'll make out OK," he said. "It's not going to be a banner year like last year."
While some individual farmers may come up short, with especially light yields, Turner expects the higher prices to boost overall returns.
"It looks very good for the industry, right now," he said.
Contact reporter Reed Fujii at (209) 546-8253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c)2013 The Record (Stockton, Calif.)
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