Growing conditions in California have led growers to anticipate big harvests in nuts and some dried fruits, although colleagues in other regions and commodities say weather has worked against their crops.


California almonds may approach a record volume this year, according to officials.


“This was forecast to be the largest crop we’ve had (1.6 billion pounds), largely the result of expansion of acreage in the San Joaquin Valley,” said Joe Connell, Butte County farm adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension in Oroville. “We had a lot of rain in the northern part of the state during bloom, so that will be lighter.”


Early returns were a bit low, Connell said, but he emphasized that it was early.


“The returns have been coming in so far are down a little from what they were expecting, at least in our area, where we do get a lot of rain,” he said. “Whether it comes to expectations or not we don’t know.”


The record is 1.5 billion pounds.


“Similar to walnuts, we’ve been fortunate as an industry,” said Matt Mariani, sales and marketing director for Mariani Nut Co., Winters, Calif. “The products have maintained a healthy growth with the health benefits that have been communicated, the versatility of the product. So the demand of almonds has kept pace and in many cases exceeded supplies.”


This year’s date harvest, which was scheduled to commence Oct. 1, has been estimated at 26 million pounds, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported Sept. 15.


According to the California Agricultural Statistics Service, the 2009 volume was 23.4 million pounds of fresh equivalent.


There are 85 producers and nine handlers of dates in the California Date Administrative Committee, Indio.


Telephone calls to the administrative committee were not returned.


Cool weather may cut into volumes of dried plums this year, “but the quality looks good,” said Richard Peterson, executive director of the California Dried Plum Board, Sacramento. “The CASS (California Agricultural Statistics Service) estimate was 150,000 tons, but industry sources are saying it may fall 10% to 15% below that when all prunes have been delivered.”


Jeff McLemore, product manager for North America for Sunsweet Growers Inc., Yuba City, Calif., agreed that volumes would be down.


“Everything that I’ve heard, the crop looks pretty good — certainly not a huge crop, but we’re not falling into some of the issues we’ve had over the last five years, with some really short crops,” he said. “Fruit size should be pretty good. Our growers are telling us it should be a good year from a supply standpoint.”


Returns could be on the rise, though, he said.


“I think they very well could be up,” he said. “Obviously, we try to do all possible to make that happen, so they’re profitable in their fields and orchards overall.”


Last year, the volume was about 165,000 tons, said Greg Thompson, general manager with the Yuba City-based Prune Bargaining Association, which negotiates a price on behalf of growers.


“A year ago we had good crop, but grower prices were depressed,” he said. “This year, it’s a fair crop but down about 25% or more from last year. It looks like prices should improve this year.”


Fig growers are starting on what they think will be a “pretty good-sized crop,” said Linda Cain, vice president of marketing for Valley Fig Growers, Fresno, Calif.


“The crop is just now getting delivered, and from what we’re hearing, the quality is excellent and size about the same as last year,” Cain said. “We just have our fingers crossed that there is not going to be any rain in the next few weeks.”


A good year would be a continuance of a reversal of fortunate for growers, Cain said.


“Last year turned out well. We had plenty of good-quality figs,” she said. “We came off two years of earlier problems getting good quality and sizing, and the size of the crop had challenges, so we’ve had two years in a row.”


Last year’s harvest totaled about 12,000 tons, and growers are talking about a similar volume this year, Cain said.


“We’re hearing it appears to be pretty close to that number,” she said. “There have been no major changes in acres.”


Oregon, which produces virtually all of the hazelnuts grown in the U.S. for commercial markets, anticipates a volume of about 27,000 tons — well short of last year’s 47,000, according to Polly Owen, manager of the Hazelnut Marketing Board, Aurora, Ore.


The lower number takes no one by surprise, Owen said.


“The crop is down from last year; however, we had our second-highest on record last year,” she said. “It’s quite a drop, but we expect that because it’s pretty much an alternate-bearing crop.”


The only concern, as of Sept. 24, was the possibility of a lagging harvest, Owen said.


“As is true with other commodities in Oregon, the crop is going to mature later, and that is an issue if we start getting bad weather,” she said. “It’s longer to dry it and makes the whole process drag out.”


Typically the harvest is under way by Sept. 20, but this year it was likely to be “a couple of weeks” behind schedule, Owen said.


“If we have a good year and can get done fast, six weeks is good,” she said. “Generally, we’re done by Nov. 1. And we like to be done by then. But if it starts raining it just drags on.”


The market also could determine how long the deal lasts, she said.


“If the price is high, those people are more apt to do a final pick,” she said.


The peanut harvest in the Southeast was getting under way on a “very localized” basis in mid-September, said Ryan Lepicier, vice president of marketing and communications for the Atlanta-based National Peanut Board.


“It depends on whether farms are dry land or irrigated,” he said. “But it looks like a good crop.”


Volumes may be a bit higher this year than last, when growers cut back in response to previous overproduction, Lepicier said.


“They grow them in rotation with other crops,” he said.


Dry weather has affected this year’s crop, said Tyron Spearman, executive director of the National Peanut Buying Points Association, Tifton, Ga.


“We’re having a horrible time trying to get this crop in. The drought in the last eight weeks has many sections in the major part of the peanut belt with no rain,” he said.


The dry weather is expected to cut into yields, Spearman said.


The main growing areas in southern Georgia, southern Alabama, Florida and South Carolina, which produce 70% of the U.S. peanut crop, are expected to produce 2.04 million tons this year, compared to 1.84 tons a year ago, according to the USDA.


“I feel certain we will be short of that,” Spearman said.


Georgia anticipates a pecan harvest of 75 million to 80 million pounds, compared to 90 million last year, said Duke Lane, chairman of the Georgia Pecan Commission, Atlanta.


“We’ve had basically what is known as an off-year in Georgia,” he said. “It was good for the most part, spotty in areas.”


Drought conditions could affect the outcome, he said.


“Now is a critical time for pecans to fill out,” he said. “You get rain in spring to size them and rain to fill them out to determine the quality of the actual nut. We’ve been dry for the whole month of September. As it has been all summer, we’ve been unseasonably hot and dry. We went straight from winter to summer.”


The pecan market has been strong, particularly with export markets, Lane said.


Shipments of pistachios in the 2009-10 fiscal year, which ended Aug. 31, were up 29% over the previous year, said Richard Matoian, executive director of the Fresno-based Western Pistachio Association.


“That is a very positive story because domestic shipments over the last number of years had remained — not flat — but hadn’t increased by appreciable amounts,” Matoian said.


There likely were a couple of reasons for that, including a series of TV commercials by Lost Hills, Calif.-base Wonderful Pistachios and the association’s launch of thegreennut.org, a consumer-oriented website, Matoian said.


“Between the efforts we did generically as well as individual brands to promote brands, it had a positive effect in the marketplace,” he said.


California anticipates a record walnut volume this year.


According to the USDA, growers plan to harvest 510,000 short tons, which would be 17% larger than 2009’s crop of 437,000 and more than double the crop production in 2000.


This year’s estimate is scheduled to be confirmed in February.


California walnuts account for 99% of the commercial U.S. supply and three-fourths of world trade.


Dennis Balint, executive director of the California Walnut Board and chief executive officer of the California Walnut Commission in Folsom, attributes the increased volume to a number of factors.


“Generally, we’ve had good growing conditions but, more importantly, we’ve had new acres and replantings,” he said. “When we replant an old orchard, we’re generally going from 1 to 1.5 tons per acres, we’re jumping to 3 tons an acre. And new varieties are coming on in about four years, compared to seven years before.”


From 2003 to 2007 the industry’s average annual production was 336,000 tons, Balint said.


“The patterns seem to be disappearing,” Balint said. “The cyclical bearing, we don’t see that in these numbers. We think that’s because new acres coming on are so productive.”


Preliminary estimates, based on bunch counts, put the upcoming raisin crop at about 10% over the 350,000 tons sold from Aug. 1, 2009 to July 31, said Glen Goto, CEO of the Raisin Bargaining Association, Fresno.


The industry remains in wait-and-see mode, though, Goto said.


Inventories were practically gone by the last week of September, Goto said.


“We had a tremendous sales year,” he said. “That was one of our largest seasons ever. We’re basically out of inventory, so the processors are anxious to get this new crop. This delay is creating a lot of field activity.”


Weather will be the final determining factor, Goto said.


“If we get no rain through October, I’d say this crop will be in good shape,” he said. “Rain could have a huge impact on our supply.”