The US dried fruit and nut sector continued to expand in 2015, racking up US$8.2bn in annual sales, an increase of just over 6 per cent from 2013.
According to USDA figures, nuts – led by almonds, pistachios and walnuts – accounted for approximately 93 per cent of sales as world markets continue to demand the outstanding nutritional content these categories provide.
While the value of dried fruit and nuts increased year on year, exported volume fell by 9 per cent across most of these categories. The strength of the US dollar against currencies of major export markets contributed to the drop in tonnage, as did a smaller 2014 California almond crop.
In July 2015, the USDA forecasted the 2015 California almond crop would come in at around 816,000 tonnes, or about 4 per cent less than in 2014. The state’s on-going drought and poor pollinating conditions that prevailed in the spring were cited as the reasons.
By the end of October, however, crop almond deliveries to processors led the industry to believe yields would be closer to 771,000 tonnes. If so, this would make the 2015 crop the shortest since the 744,000 tonnes delivered in 2010.
California growers were seeing record prices for their almonds at the start of the new shipping season, in August. Although international sales have been sluggish thus far, with California responsible for 80 per cent of the world’s almond production, FOB prices are expected to remain strong indefinitely.
Western Europe was the largest market for California almonds during the 2014/15 shipping season, importing more than 212,000 tonnes for a 40 per cent global market share, while Spain was the largest single European destination at 69,300 tonnes.
Demonstrating their optimism for global almond demand – and, apparently, a lack of concern over drought – growers have been on an almond-planting frenzy over the past two years, sending nursery stock sales soaring. According to a recent California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) report, approximately 39,000ha of almonds have been planted in the state since June 2014, with 75 per cent dedicated to new orchards.
The nut crop that has felt the worst of California’s drought is pistachios. Last year, California produced 236,000 tonnes of the nuts with the ‘Pacman’ smile. This year, with a lack of sufficient chilling over the winter hours that resulted in an uneven spring bloom, growers discovered an unprecedented percentage of ‘blanks’ – shells with no nut inside – as the harvest got underway in late summer.
Reports are that blanking is averaging 30 per cent in most orchards compared with a normal rate of around 5 per cent, which has led most industry experts to believe that the 2015 pistachio crop will not exceed 125,000 tonnes. If so, that would amount to the smallest crop in a decade.
Entering the new season, FOB prices for pistachios were already at record levels and are now likely to move even higher given the short crop. Add in a steadily appreciating US dollar, and the industry is concerned that demand for California pistachios may suffer long-term damage in key foreign markets.
While a large carry-over of product from last season is expected to mitigate the problem somewhat, maintaining international markets is critical to the California pistachio industry, which expects to see production reach 1bn pounds by 2020.
The European Union was the leading importing region of in-shell pistachios at 47,700 tonnes during 2014, with Belgium-Luxemburg the primary point of entry (18,300 tonnes).
In contrast to almonds and pistachios, the California walnut industry is anticipating a possible record year in production.
Where low winter chill hours and drought caused major problems with pollination, ideal weather conditions prevailed throughout the walnut bloom period in spring, extending into the summer, allowing for a strong nut set.
The consensus among the industry is that the USDA’s pre-season forecast of 575,000 tonnes looks to be fairly accurate. If so, that would eclipse the previous record of 570,000 tonnes set just last year.
Two years ago, East Asia was the leading importing region for both shelled and in-shell walnuts but, due to rising prices and the appreciation of the US dollar, the European Union emerged as the leading destination for California walnuts during 2014 at just under 60,000 tonnes.
Despite a 10 per cent drop in bearing acreage from last year, the USDA is forecasting a 13 per cent increase in California’s raisin production in 2015 to approximately 900,000 tonnes.
Declining acreage due to the cost of production has forced growers to alternative crops over the last decade, and according to the CDFA, there were just under 95,000ha planted to ‘raisin type’ – primarily Thompson Seedless – throughout the state, falling to approximately 75,000 as of this season, with California’s raisin acreage expected to further decline over the next several years.
Export markets continue to be a bright spot for the California industry as global volume has increased by 18 per cent to more than 152,000 tonnes over the last two years. Japan and the UK are leading destinations, with imports of approximately 20,650 tonnes each in 2014.