California Walnut Industry Gears Up To Market Record Crop

On August 28, USDA NASS released the Objective Measurement of the 2020 walnut crop at 780,000 short tons, an increase of 19% over the prior year. “The industry has been expecting increases given continued growth in new acreage, more densely planted orchards, and heavier yielding varieties and has planned accordingly,” stated grower Robert Driver, California Walnut Commission (CWC) Chairperson. “Demand creation for future crop utilization has been years in the making, with the industry’s strategic plan focused on growing sales in the U.S. domestic market and internationally.”

To take advantage of the large crop and continued demand, a tremendous growth opportunity exists in the U.S. market to expand all sectors of the walnut business across retail, food manufacturing/industrial and foodservice. “We have been planning for these larger crops by expanding consumption through all sectors,” said Michelle Connelly, Executive Director/CEO of the California Walnut Board and Commission (CWB/CWC). “Despite what you might think, per capita consumption of walnuts is only 0.6 pounds per year in the U.S., leaving an exceptional opportunity to further develop consumers’ love of walnuts.”

Efforts are underway to expand grocery retail presence through two national promotional campaigns, which include a program focused on growing the snacking segment. “While walnuts are not often thought of as a snack, our consumers are telling us otherwise with snacking becoming our top consumer use,” said Jennifer Olmstead, Marketing Director, Domestic PR at CWB/CWC. “Our goal is to make walnuts top-of-mind, not only for consumers, but for food manufacturers and foodservice as well. Not only are walnuts a versatile ingredient that can’t be overlooked, they are a powerhouse of nutrition – offering essential ALA omega-3 (2.5 g/oz.) and plant-based protein (4 g/oz.) – with benefits that are critical to consumers who are seeking healthy, clean, nutritious foods now more than ever.”

The domestic market offers advantages to the industry: proximity, stability and risk prevention from some of the turbulent times that recent tariff issues have created. However, the industry’s export markets remain vital to the industry’s growth strategy, accounting for more than 60% of annual shipment volumes. The industry has continued to adapt to tariff market challenges, while pursuing new markets for walnuts. Export market diversification has been key to this strategy, and continuing to find and develop export markets is essential.

“We know we can further diversify the segments of business – similar to the U.S. with growth in food manufacturing and foodservice – while propping up our retail channel. Interestingly, COVID-19 has actually helped increase sales in the retail segment. Retailers and consumers increasingly embrace e-commerce, opening new avenues for retail promotion, while also bolstering the importance of neighborhood grocery, in many countries like Spain and India,” said grower Todd Ramos, CWC Market Development Committee Chairperson.

Core export markets in Europe and Asia remain critical to the industry and, despite their once-perceived mature status, present excellent opportunity. “But we aren’t stopping there,” stated Pamela Graviet, CWC Senior Marketing Director, International. “With expanded programs in the Middle East, the industry has identified untapped potential among markets that traditionally heavily consume nuts and dried fruits. Global population projections predict that 30% of the world’s population by 2050 will be new mouths to feed; therefore, market research will continue to identify opportunity in new and established markets.”

To encourage handler investment to grow the walnut market through individual marketing activities, the industry pursued credit-back authority through a marketing order. “We know that the development of new walnut applications is critical to our expansion of the walnut market, and handlers are already making investments, but this program is poised to take that to the next level,” stated grower William (Bill) Tos, CWC Executive Committee Chairperson. The program authority, if approved by a vote of the growers, would come into effect this 2020/21 season.

At a time when consumers globally are seeking healthy foods more than ever, walnuts offer a multitude of benefits further demonstrated by nutrition research. “Thirty years of research has established walnuts’ heart health benefits and more. But as with all things, the evolution of science is changing rapidly, and that change is also driven by what is important to consumers – gut health, sleep quality, mental health and obesity. Our health research program continues to identify how walnuts can play a role in these important consumer public health issues, while offering a simple, convenient way to potentially improve overall health,” stated Jack Mariani, CWB Market Development Committee Chairperson.

Investment in production research remains foundational to helping growers produce a better crop, protect against disease and improve orchard management practices, ultimately enhancing the sustainability of the industry. Post-harvest research continues to identify potentially exciting means to improve shelf life, best practices to help manufacturers incorporate more walnuts, by-product utilization and food safety.

“Our objective has been and continues to be to keep demand ahead of supply. The industry’s investment, careful planning and foresight have set the stage for continued success,” Tos went on to say. Walnut production has doubled in the last 15 years, with new acreage reaching 380,000 with an additional 75,000 acres set to come into production. California walnut growers’ investment in the future will allow more consumers worldwide to enjoy the benefits of consuming walnuts.

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