Friday, June 01, 2007

Looking forward to A 1.3 billion crop
Record almond crop expected in California
By OLIVIA MUNOZ Associated Press WriterNews Fuze
Article Launched:05/31/2007 02:25:35 PM PDT
LIVINGSTON, Calif.- They may have started as a few pet trees planted by Spanish missionaries, but almonds are now a big, big crop in California, where ideal climate and irrigation have let the nuts bloom into a $2 billion a year business.
On Scott Hunter's farm in the hot, fertile San Joaquin Valley, the limbs on some of the younger trees are having a hard time holding up what he predicts will be part of "a once-in-a-lifetime type of crop" when the harvest begins in mid-August.
"Like any ag commodity, we've been faced with a lot of ups and downs," said Hunter, 37, who farms 1,200 acres of almonds in Livingston. "This year is definitely an up."
The record harvest, along with more growers dedicating acreage to almonds, is expected to solidify California's position as the world's leading producer of a crop that once grew wild in Mediterranean countries. The state already produces 80 percent of the almonds sold worldwide.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts growers will harvest more than 1.3 billion pounds this year, a 17 percent jump from the 1.12 billion pounds harvested last year. Just a decade ago, the state's almond trees yielded 759 million pounds.
The predicted almond boom is due to a mix of auspicious conditions: a strong market, a spring bloom that went well despite a mysterious illness that killed bees used during pollination, and favorable weather for the crop, which thrives in Central Valley soil from Bakersfield to Chico.
"There aren't a lot of places in the world where you can grow almonds. We have a unique situation here in that the climate is good and we have the water system that has made it possible," said Bruce Lampinen, a nut specialist with the University of California's Cooperative Extension in Davis.
As almonds have become more popular with health-conscious consumers, growers have banded together under the Almond Board of California, a marketing group made up of most of the state's 6,000 almond farmers.
The board has sponsored health research for many years and in 2002 successfully petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the right to promote the claim that almonds help with long-term weight loss.
It's become a powerful agency that has helped make the almond the "it" nut by publishing glossy advertisements in women's magazines and pushing hard into foreign markets, said Marsha Venable, spokeswoman for the board. Export targets include countries like India and China where the nuts already are a familiar food.
In the United States, companies already offer prepackaged almonds flavored, seasoned, roasted and raw to appeal to a variety of tastes.
"They're no longer just considered for desserts and pastries. They're on menus, they're a snack," Venable said.
The nuts' popularity has some growers worried about a saturated market that could drive prices down—but not Hunter, who said he sees the almond market as ever-expanding.
"Even though we're producing more, we're also shipping more. The market is there," Hunter said. "We once feared having a billion-pound crop, but now look at us."
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