California Experiences Record-Breaking Almond Production
Marketable almond production in the United States reached a record high of 1.99 billion shelled pounds during the 2011/12 season. The increase in bearing acreage, ideal weather, and production technology changes led to the high level of production. Advances in irrigation, fertigation, and denser tree plantings (from 84.5 trees per acre in 1986 to 111 trees per acre in 2011) allow for more efficient production and higher yields per acre. Included in the increased bearing acreage are newer almond variety plantings for better pollination which in turn leads to larger crops.
Pollination is critical for strong almond yields. Since almond trees cannot self-pollinate, 1.6 million beehives (roughly 2 hives per acre) are brought in from all over the country for a few weeks every spring when the trees bloom. Industry sources site this as the largest single managed pollination event in the world. The plight of bees struggling with Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has caused an increase in hive prices for almond growers and substantial interest in research to stop the loss of productive hives across the country.
As with production, the rest of the almond industry is centralized in California, with 104 handlers to support over 6,000 growers in the State. Within California, production is largely concentrated in Kern, Fresno, Merced, and Stanislaus counties in the San Joaquin Valley. In 2011, these counties accounted for 64 percent of the State’s total almond bearing acreage. Additional almond production occurs in the Sacramento Valley.
Nonpareil remained the most popular variety, with 37 percent of almond acres (bearing and nonbearing), followed by Butte (12 percent), Carmel (12 percent), Monterey (11 percent), and Padre (8 percent). The top five varieties accounted for 80 percent of the total almond acres in 2010.
Almonds were the fourth largest crop in terms of acreage in California behind hay, wheat, and grapes in 2010. Bearing acreage in California increased an average of 21,000 acres each year since 1995, reaching a record high of 760,000 acres in 2011. However, new plantings have slowed in recent years.
Since 1970, almonds have traditionally dominated bearing acreage of tree-nut crops in the United States. Between 2006 and 2010, almond acreage averaged 678,000 acres, followed by walnuts with 224,000 acres and pistachios with 122,000 acres. Since the 1996/97 season, almonds have consistently out-produced walnuts to become the largest tree nut crop grown in the United States on a per pound basis.
Despite swings in production due to the almond’s alternate bearing cycle, yields have seen vast and consistent improvement. Beginning with an average of 211 pounds per acre in the 1920s, yield has steadily increased through the first decade of the 2000s (2000-2009) when average yield reached 1,886 pounds per acre. Yields may continue to increase, as 2011 saw a record-breaking 2,600 pounds per acre. Improvements in production technology continue to drive growth in the industry.