A record Australian almond harvest is being matched by strong demand from China in the wake of sanctions on US imports.
Ideal growing conditions across a hot, dry summer has this year’s Australian crop expected to reach 100,000 tonnes for the first time. This has coincided with a 50 per cent tariff on hulled and unshelled Californian almonds in China, which has been in place since last year.
The last Chinese tariffs on Australian almonds were also removed this year under a free trade agreement.
The reporting year for almonds in Australia runs from March 1 to February 28. Australian Almond Board of Australia figures released last month show that total almond exports reached a record 60,895 tonnes (kernel weight equivalent) in 2018/19, up 12 per cent on the previous year.
This was driven by a 20-fold increase in exports to China from 600 tonnes (KWE) in 2017/18 to 11,860 this year. Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and Japan also recorded strong growth but India maintained its position as the largest buyer of Australian almonds despite a slight fall in volume to 15,155 (KWE).
Australian almonds are exported in shell and as hulled kernels, with India taking the vast majority of the unshelled product.
Harvest in Australia takes place from February to April. While the first shipments of unshelled almonds are already well on their way to export markets, hulling is expected to be completed around the middle of the year.
The pre-harvest forecast for this season was for a crop of 93,000 tonnes but Almond Board of Australia CEO Ross Skinner said the final figure might exceed 100,000 tonnes for the first time. The previous record crop was about 82,000 tonnes.
Skinner said the record crop was the result of a combination of additional almond plantings in the past six years and an incident-free growing season.
“The previous four seasons the crops have plateaued at just over 80,000 tonnes mainly due to hail, frost and wind whereas this season there was very little impact of adverse weather conditions on the crop,” he said.
“It’s really the first time in a number of years that it’s reached its true potential.
“Shaking is complete and it’s been an excellent harvest with ideal weather conditions – hot and dry.
“Prices are strong but they have come back from the highs of a few years ago.”
Australia the second largest producer
California produces about 80 per cent of the world’s almonds with Australia the second largest producer at 7 per cent ahead of Spain, Iran and Italy.
Skinner said the Chinese retaliatory tariffs on American almonds had given Australian almond exporters the chance to become established in the Chinese market.
“We had been showing increased interest from the Chinese trade following the Free Trade Agreement, which reduced tariffs in a phased manner down to zero from January 1, 2019, but the real push along has come from the 50 per cent tariff that was placed on Californian almonds,” he said.
“Whether that continues when and if the tariffs are removed from the US product but it’s certainly given us an opportunity to establish our product in that market and for the nut trade to see the quality of Australian almonds.
“There’s already been strong pre-sales of this year’s crop.”
Record global production
A rise in almond consumption and increased plantings led to record global production of 1.3 million tonnes in 2017/18.
The Australian almond orchard has grown to 45,000ha and has a farmgate value of about $750 million.
Plantings are expected to plateau in a few years at around 50,000ha with an annual production of 150,000 tonnes. About 98 per cent of almonds are grown along the River Murray in South Australia, Victoria and NSW.
“There’s significant growth annually for almonds around the world and that’s helping to keep a balance between supply and demand because there is also growth in the orchard area,” Skinner said.
“A lot of the markets in Asia are emerging markets with potential and we’ve got a number of other established markets throughout the world – at the moment we’re delivering to over 50 countries.
“Almonds are being used more and more in manufacturing because of the fact that it’s gluten free and because of the uptake of vegan and vegetarian diets the high protein level in almonds is a factor that consumers are looking for.
“The health benefits of almonds is also playing a major role in increasing consumer demand, whether that be just in snacking almonds or buying them in manufactured goods.”
Almondco represents 85 per cent of Australian growers and processes about 30 per cent of the national almond crop.
Managing Director Brenton Woolston said the amount of almonds arriving for processing was about 12 per cent above initial grower estimates.
He said Almondco’s major markets were Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
“We deal with 160 growers across all the growing regions and from our analysis from the Riverina in NSW, Sunraysia and Swan Hill in Victoria and Riverland and Adelaide Plains in South Australia we should eclipse the 100,000 tonnes as an industry for the first time,” Woolston said.
“Growers are pretty happy with their crop yields in 2019, prices are up, driven by international demand for almonds and a lower Aussie dollar.”
“Certainly since those tariffs were imposed on the US almonds, there has been a tsunami of enquiries coming from China. At the moment that is a market we do have an advantage in but everybody is taking a fairly cautious approach to it.”
New varieties released
The Almond Board of Australia is trialling high and medium density plantings at the Almond Centre of Excellence Orchard in the Riverland.
Skinner said the potential lack of bees to pollenate trees has placed an increasing importance on the development of self-fertilising varieties.
He said the forecast of tight water allocations would likely impact on the bottom line for growers next season.
“Because of the return on almonds, most growers will try to secure their water allocations on the market,” he said.
Andrew Spence is a senior writer for The Lead, South Australia