By Craig W. Anderson
Walnuts are an ancient crop, harvested by the Greeks, Romans and English centuries ago and the hardy nut tree keeps on producing today despite extreme summer heat, a virus pandemic and assorted other challenges.
The USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) set the stage for what it estimates could be a harvest of 780,000 tons, an increase of 19% over last year’s harvest and 1% more than the previous record harvest of 689,000 tons achieved in 2016.
“Anecdotally, indications are this is going to be a big, good crop,” said SJFB First Vice President Ken Vogel, a walnut farmer in the Linden/Farmington area. “But it’s a dirty crop in that some of it’s black in older trees due to the effects of heat.” He added that “it’s clean at one location and dirty in spots elsewhere. Overall, though, the crop looks good.”
NASS based its forecast on the California Walnut Objective Measurement Survey which was done from August 1-20 and it noted that walnut bearing acres rose 4% to 380,000 acres which accounts, in part, for the increase in volume leading to a potential record crop.
“I understand production looks good but prices need to be higher to match the production,” SJFB President David Strecker said. “The late summer heat and wildfire smoke and the COVID pandemic have created challenges for the industry and made things interesting.” He said COVID-19 caused the county to make thousands of masks available to ag workers during harvest.
According to a USDA report, the 2020 walnut growing season began with a warm and dry January and February and this, coupled with low chilling hours resulted in uneven canopy and nut development. Despite all this, the nut set appeared to remain good as the season progressed and, noted the report, harvest was expected to begin earlier than in 2019.
Vogel pointed out that during the early harvest. prices are down and that the pandemic “has created an environment that makes it harder to sell walnuts but there will always be a demand for them.”
The wet winter and hot summer “stirred up mites,” Vogel said, resulting in “more insect problems and the extreme heat for weeks at a time that brought its own set of challenges. Every year’s different.”
“It’s too early to tell whether or not this will be a record crop,” said SJFB Second Vice President Jake Samuel, and custom harvester based in Linden. “The early varieties tend to be light, so we’ll have a better idea once we get farther into harvest.”
He said the extreme heat as harvest neared and pressure from blight and mites were some of the challenges growers had to deal with in 2020.
“It’s my opinion that the intense wildfire smoke that significantly reduced sunlight also hurt the photosynthesis that occurs with walnuts right around harvest,” Samuel said. He was uncertain what the eventual impact on the nuts might be. “Hopefully, whatever the effect is, it won’t cause much harm.”
Regardless of the challenges, the California Walnut Commission is preparing to effectively handle the large – record breaking or not – crop, said CWC Executive Committee Chair Bill Tos. “Our objective has been and continues to be to keep demand ahead of supply.” He said walnut production has “doubled over the last 15 years with an additional 75,000 acres new plantings [statewide] set to come into production.”
“A tremendous growth opportunity exists in the U.S. market to expand all sectors of the walnut business across retail, food manufacturing/industrial and food service,” said Michelle Connelly, executive director/CEO of the California Walnut Board and Commission. “We’ve been planning for these larger crops by expanding consumption through all sectors.”
The Walnut Board and Commission will continue the effort to expand walnuts’ position in the retail grocery sector via a pair of national promotions, including a program focused on increasing the popularity and sales of walnut snacks.
Walnuts will be headlining the snack market, according to Jennifer Olmstead, marketing director of domestic public relations for the board and commission by making walnuts “top of mind, not only for consumers but for food manufacturers and food service.”
She pointed out that not only are walnuts a “versatile ingredient that can’t be overlooked, they’re a powerhouse of nutrition with benefits that are critical to consumers seeking healthy, clean and nutritious foods.”
The board and commission said the domestic market offers advantages such as proximity, stability and risk prevention from the turbulence of international trade tariff issues. This is good because export markets comprise more than 60% of annual shipment volumes; the export walnut sector continually adapts to tariff challenges while searching out new overseas markets.
“Export market diversification has been key to this strategy and continuing to find and develop essential export markets,” the board and commission said in a statement.
San Joaquin County walnut growers are concerned about water reliability – “The reservoirs are down,” Vogel said, and some reports indicating another drought seems imminent, along with “everyone trying to deal with the COVID situation as best they can.” Vogel explained that SJFB “continues working very hard via virtual meetings and other means to represent our members about the many issues we face.”
Additional diversification of the walnut business with growth in food manufacturing and food service while supporting walnuts’ retail channels is the order of the day for this walnut crop, whatever its size. “Consumers are increasingly embracing e-commerce and opening new avenues for retail promotion,” Tos said. “The importance of the neighborhood grocery in many countries like Spain and India is also being bolstered.”
Walnut harvests like those produced by the hard-working walnut growers of San Joaquin County will keep the nuts flowing into the burgeoning domestic and worldwide marketplaces.
All the expanding and growing of the walnut marketplace sounds good to Vogel, but “I’m ready for a cold and wet winter when this harvest is over,” he said.
Vogel knows what a larger harvest means: “I’m back on the tractor because of some personnel changes on the ranch but it always feels good to be working at harvest because this is the Super Bowl of agriculture.”