Opinion

Delayed US Almond Harvest Leads to High Rejection Rates and Quality Concerns

Published Oct 13, 2023
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The 2023 almond harvest in California is significantly delayed, with only 24% of the crop delivered in the first two months – well below the five-year average of 36%. This delay has led to uneven almond maturation, impacting harvesting decisions and causing variations in almond sizes. Orchard management is also affected, as typical post-harvest practices like increased watering, fertilization, and pruning are delayed, affecting almond bud development. Furthermore, quality concerns have risen, with a higher rejection rate of 3.99% by the USDA and increased instances of navel orange worm damage and fungal infections.

Delay in Almond Deliveries

The almond harvest normally starts in August, with the earliest varieties coming in at the beginning of the month. The current almond harvest is lagging by approximately 15 days due to cooler weather at the start of its growth phase, which slowed down nut development. In the initial two months of the 2023/24 Marketing Year (MY), the Almond Board of California (ABC) reported deliveries of just 625 million pounds (lbs). Given that the estimated crop size is 2.6 billion lbs, this accounts for a mere 24% of the total crop. This is significantly slower than the average for the past five years, where around 36% of the crop was typically delivered in the first two months of the MY. Previously, the slowest harvest at this stage occurred in 2019/2020, with only 33% of the crop delivered. However, it's worth noting that the harvest experienced a remarkable and rapid progression in Oct-19.

Source: ABC

Implications of the Delayed Harvest

The delayed harvest will impact the industry in several ways. Due to the uneven maturation of almonds this season, farmers are having a much more difficult choice in timing the shaking of the trees for harvesting. There is variation in the stages of maturity, even within orchards. This will likely lead to significant variations in the sizes of almonds.

Another implication involves challenges in managing almond orchards. Almond buds begin to form in September, coinciding with the almond harvest. Typically, after the harvest, farmers increase the water supply, apply fertilizers, and prune almond trees. These actions are intended to encourage the development of flower buds, which will ultimately produce almonds the following season. The delay in the harvest is disrupting these practices, resulting in fewer nutrients being available during a critical growth phase.

Quality Concerns

In addition to almond size variations, there are several concerns associated with the quality of almonds being harvested at a later stage. This is already apparent by the high percentage of rejects from the current crop. Almonds pass through the quality control measures by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and receive inspection certificates to reject inedible and substandard almonds.

As of the end of Sep-23, 742 million lbs of harvested almonds passed through this process, of which 30 million lbs were rejected – a high percentage of 3.99%. This is more than double the normal rejection rate, which averaged 1.76% over the preceding five years at the same point in time. Typically, the rejection rate remains relatively consistent throughout the season, making the potential for significant losses concerning.

With the later harvest, the occurrence of damage caused by the navel orange worm has also been higher. Not only do the larvae feed directly on almonds, but they also damage the nuts, leaving them more susceptible to fungal infections and aflatoxins.

The Crop Estimate of 2.6 Billion Lbs

The USDA’s objective crop forecast, made in July, was 2.6 billion lbs, but preliminary observed yields and the high rejection rate indicate that the crop might fall short of this estimate. Yields reported early in the season have been below expectations. Many producers report yields below last season when the crop reached 2.565 billion lbs. If the rejection rate remains high, it could further lower the usable crop. The subjective forecasts by the USDA typically have a very high accuracy, with an average diversion of 6.6% from final production. However, these forecasts become more complicated with more frequent extreme and unnatural weather conditions over the growing season.

Source: USDA

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