Banner year for almonds

By Joshua Emerson Smith
jsmith@mercedsunstar.com
November 18, 2011 

What at first looked like a questionable almond season is turning out to be a banner year.

Rainy weather initially prevented bees from pollinating the almond trees. However, farmers in Merced County now expect to pull in one of the biggest harvests on record.

"The beginning of the year was real disappointing," said Scott Hunter of Hunter Farms. "No bees were flying at all. We were sitting in the field thinking our whole year was over. But as time went on, we got just enough bees in flight. The trees were rested from two marginal years. It was one of the most unique years I've seen."

Hunter, a member of the Almond Board of California, said farmers up and down the state were hit with similar weather early in the season. But just as in Merced, the almond business statewide is predicted to do very well.

This year, California farmers are expected to produce a record 1.95 billion pounds of almonds, surpassing the 1.65 billion produced in 2008. And markets seem ready to consume the harvest. Shipments for exports and imports broke an all-time record for October at more than 219 million pounds.

The success of the business is partly because of growing demand from emerging economies. Foreign markets buy 75 percent of California almonds, according to the Almond Board. And almond exports to India and China increased by 25 percent last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Almonds have become increasingly popular because of the health benefits associated with the food and its popularity as an ingredient in other products, said Susi McFarland, Almond Board communications manager. According to two global databases, Mintel and Innova, almonds are the No. 1 ingredient used in new products worldwide.

The Almond Board has launched a new program to encourage farmers to document the use of environmentally sustainable practices.

"We are seeing more and more that our buyers and our consumers at the store are wanting proof that we are growing sustainable product," McFarland said.

"We want the large stakeholders, the buyers, the consumers and ultimately those in our industry to know that most of our growers are already doing sustainable farming. But we know that most of that is not documented."

About 200 growers representing about 36,000 acres participate in the Almond Board's sustainability documentation program. McFarland said the program is in its "toddler" stage.

Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209)385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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