Monday, January 21, 2008

Nut trees hot ticket at nurseries

Bob Krauter
Capital Press

As growers push out older almond orchards like this one near Santa Nella last year, many are replacing them with new trees. A check of major nurseries in the state shows that almonds, walnuts and pistachio trees are in high demand.
California farmers' love affair with nuts shows no signs of stopping anytime soon based on a check of the state's major nurseries. Grower demand for almond, walnut and pistachio trees - in addition to olives and some types of citrus - remains strong.

Jack Poukish, general manager of business and sales for Sierra Gold Nursery in Yuba City, said demand exceeds supply of bareroot walnut trees. Other nuts are going strong, too.

"There is always going to be a strong trend forward for orchardists to lean to lower-labor tree crops - that means almonds, walnuts, this new super high-density olive system for the production of olive oil," Poukish said. "Orchardists are hesitant to increase acreage for high-labor-intensive crops like cherries or peaches."

At 615,000 bearing acres in 2007, almonds are the state's No. 1 nut crop. A decade ago, almond acreage was 442,000 acres, but as acreage has increased the industry's marketing and sales have kept pace. Poukish said sales of almond trees have slowed, but they still represent a major portion of sales for major nurseries.

"A lot of people thought almonds were overdone 10 years ago and we have seen such an expansion of the market and acreage," Poukish said. "Yes, we probably hit a peak about three years ago, but just like it is for Burchell, Wilson and Fowler and the other major bareroot nurseries, it is a significant segment for all of the bareroot nurseries serving orchardists in California. Even if it was just on replant business alone, that's a lot of trees."

The early January winter storms that swept through the Sacramento Valley blew down an estimated 10,000 almond trees, and Poukish said growers are already lining up replacement trees.

Tom Burchell of Burchell Nursery in Modesto, agrees that almonds, walnuts and pistachios are the hot items for nurseries.

"The nuts are going nuts. We wish we had more walnut trees," Burchell said. "Almond sales are a little flat right now, but they have been good. Pistachios have been good."

According to state data, bearing pistachio acreage has risen 68 percent between 1997 and 2006. Walnut acreage is up a healthy 12 percent for the same period.

Both Burchell and Poukish said sales of trees for high-density olive plantings is one of the newest and hottest trends.

"There is a positive trend in the super high-density olives," Poukish said. "There's been significant acreage planted in both the Sacramento Valley and the San Joaquin Valley although that is still a very new industry that many people are waiting to see how things go."

Because the high-density olives can be picked mechanically, Poukish said they fit with what California orchardists are looking for to avoid the scarcity and higher costs of labor.

Among the other in-demand trees being planted in the state are seedless citrus, particularly mandarins.

Bob McManaman, nursery sales for Tree Source Citrus Nursery in Exeter, said the Tango variety of seedless mandarin is popular. State data show that bearing acreage of tangerines, mandarins, tangelos and other specialty citrus has risen 61 percent between 1997 and 2006. Seedless mandarins like the Tango have helped lead that charge.

"It is anticipated to be real successful," McManaman said. He added that that the Cara Cara navel orange has seen strong sales in his area and lemons are making a comeback.

"We are seeing a greater interest in lemons than typically what we would. We don't have substantial lemon acreage and we are by no means a premiere lemon area, but for us there is more lemon interest than we have had in the past," he said. The Limoneira 8A Lisbon, because it is less frost sensitive, is the lemon variety that growers in the southern San Joaquin Valley are planting, noted McManaman.

Tom Burchell said apricots have languished for several years. Bearing acreage of apricots has steadily declined from 20,000 acres a decade ago to about 13,800. Jack Poukish said sales of apple trees, which had been on a decline for years, have reversed course.

"There is a pretty good trend on apples and nurseries in the Northwest and those on California that grow apples for the Northwest have been seeing an increasing trend in nursery tree sales," Poukish said.

While sales of prune and cling peach trees have remained stable, pear tree sales have slumped.

The pear thing for nurseries is very dead," Poukish said. "There are no new pear plantings to speak of."

Bartlett pear acreage which hit 15,600 bearing acres in 1997 has dropped to about 12,000 acres.

Bob Krauter is the California editor based in Sacramento. E-mail:

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