Valley walnut growers debut healthy advertisement

jholland@modbee.comFebruary 20, 2013 

A new magazine ad for California walnuts shows people kicking and hitting them as they would soccer balls and tennis balls.

The message: Nuts can help keep you healthy.

That pretty much describes the industry itself, which continues to find buyers around the world for the state's burgeoning crop.

About 150 growers gathered last week near Mo-desto to hear about the promotional efforts.

They center on the idea that walnuts, once considered a treat to be eaten sparingly, actually are a source of "good" fat.

Research over the past two decades suggests walnuts can help protect people against cancer and heart disease, while improving brain function and male reproductive health, said Michelle McNeil, a senior marketing director at the California Walnut Commission.

"These studies give us more reasons to tell consumers that walnuts are good for them," she said.

The University of California Cooperative Extension hosted the meeting at the Stanislaus County Agricultural Center, off Crows Landing Road.

The commission, funded by assessments on growers, will spend $2 million on the magazine campaign over a year. It targets nine U.S. publications read mostly by women, including Cooking Light, Martha Stewart Living and Sunset.

"California Walnuts -- Natural Defenders of the Human Body," the full-page ads read.

The effort is similar to that of the state's almond industry, which is much bigger than the walnut industry.

California walnut growers harvested an estimated 992 million pounds last year, up from about 564 million a decade earlier and just shy of the record crop in 2010.

The average per-pound price that growers got last year has not been reported, but it could compare well with the record $1.46 in 2011. The average in 2002 was 59 cents.

"We're seeing prices go up at the same time production goes up," said Dennis Balint, the commission's chief executive officer. "Why? Because we have strong demand."

The farm price is only part of what consumers pay, which includes processing, marketing and other costs.

Some of the nuts go into snack bags or packages for home cooks, but the majority become ingredients for makers of candy, cereal, baked goods and other products.

Domestic consumers eat 42 percent of the state's crop, Balint said. China is the leading export market, followed by Germany, South Korea, Spain, Turkey and Japan.

A weak dollar continues to make walnuts and other U.S. products attractive to foreign buyers.

Walnut growing and processing employs a few thousand people in the Central Valley. The industry also provides business for nurseries that sell young walnut trees.

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