California tree nut growers harvested record crops of almonds, walnuts and pistachios in 2020, following a year of ideal growing conditions on expanded bearing acreage. The abundance of supply led to lower tree nut prices which, combined with a weaker U.S. dollar, have pushed exports to record high volumes. The surge in exports comes despite ongoing retaliatory tariffs in importing countries like China and India and complicated shipping logistics.
According to a new report from CoBank’s Knowledge Exchange, as bearing acreage continues to expand in the years ahead, the sector will need to continue growing its export base and add processing capacity to handle future record crops.
“California’s tree nut crop has tripled in the last 20 years and continued expansion is expected as more bearing acres come into production in regions where water has not been limited,” said Tanner Ehmke, lead specialty crops economist with CoBank. “Expanding the export base will be key to finding a home for increases in production, and further investments in harvesting machinery, hulling and shelling capacity, and processing will be needed to market future tree nut crops in a timely manner.”
After experiencing an exceptional growing season last year, California growers of almonds, walnuts and pistachios harvested near-record yields on record high acreage to produce a massive crop in 2020. Harvest levels rose substantially over 2019, with almonds, walnuts and pistachios increasing by 18%, 19% and 40%, respectively.
Local markets were challenged by a lack of storage and processing capacity to handle the record crop, noting that acreage has grown too fast to harvest in a timely manner.
The immense supply, coupled with some minor quality issues, contributed to the notable drop in prices for almonds and walnuts. Almond prices fell by roughly 30% from the prior year and walnut prices were down 40%. Pistachio prices have been steady to moderately lower year-over-year following a smaller off-year harvest in 2019.
Water allocations for crop irrigation in California may impact yields of the 2021 crop. Handlers anticipate prices will be relatively stable for almonds, walnuts and pistachios heading into the next crop year and that the low-price environment will build a stronger demand base that will carry over into future marketing seasons.
While tree nut growers and handlers are expected to struggle with low prices through 2021, the payoff is coming, noted Ehmke. “Consumers around the globe are adding nuts to their diets, which will boost demand and propel export momentum,” he said.
Shipping issues with containers and the unknown impacts from COVID-19 cloud the long-term outlook on general consumption. Container shortages constrained exports from achieving a faster pace. Tree nut traders estimate that the scarcity of shipping containers has delayed 10%-20% of shipments.
CoBank is a $159 billion cooperative bank serving vital industries across rural America. The bank provides loans, leases, export financing and other financial services to agribusinesses and rural power, water and communications providers in all 50 states. The bank also provides wholesale loans and other financial services to affiliated Farm Credit associations serving more than 75,000 farmers, ranchers and other rural borrowers in 23 states around the country.
CoBank is a member of the Farm Credit System, a nationwide network of banks and retail lending associations chartered to support the borrowing needs of U.S. agriculture, rural infrastructure and rural communities. Headquartered outside Denver, Colorado, CoBank serves customers from regional banking centers across the U.S. and maintains an international representative office in Singapore.