The federal government Thursday projected a near-record almond crop in California this year -- a boon to an industry that has had little trouble finding buyers around the world.
The estimate of 2,000,700,000 pounds was announced at the Modesto headquarters of the Almond Board of California.
"I think we need that much or more to satisfy our constantly growing market," said Ron Fisher, owner of Fisher Nut Co. of Modesto. "It's been remarkable."
The National Agricultural Statistics Service based the projection on a telephone survey of 305 growers in the second half of April. A final estimate, based on actual measurements of the nuts, will be released July 1. The harvest will start in August.
The news was welcome because last year brought a dip in almond volume. That contributed to a rise in the average price per pound to $2.20, up from $1.99 in 2011 and $1.79 in 2010.
Fisher said prices currently range from $2.80 to $3.30, which works well for both growers and processors like himself.
A dozen years ago, the average price was 91 cents per pound, which was tough on growers trying to cover their production costs.
Almonds have become a leading force in the Northern San Joaquin Valley economy, thanks in part to publicity about their health benefits. Growers also have gained from high-yielding varieties and mechanized harvesting.
Ceres-area grower Tim Sanders said increased costs for fertilizer, pollinating bees and other inputs have cut into the margins, but the industry overall is healthy.
He is a member of Blue Diamond Growers, which is close to opening a Turlock plant that will slice, dice and blanch many of the nuts.
"It's going to be helpful for the community and provide significant jobs," Sanders said.
Blue Diamond, the world's largest almond processor, already employs about 900 people in Sacramento and 400 in Salida. The Turlock plant will start with about 110 workers and add an undetermined number in future years.
California grows about 75 percent of the world's almonds, which are the state's No. 1 farm export. They are second only to milk in gross income among farm products in the Northern San Joaquin Valley -- and more profitable, given the high feed costs for dairy farmers.
The Almond Board pays for the federal projection, which is announced at the stroke of noon at its offices atop the DoubleTree Hotel in downtown Modesto. The number is kept secret until then so no one can gain an advantage in the world trade.
Thursday, about 20 people gathered in a conference room, ready to call or text the news to almond handlers elsewhere. "Come on, tell us the number," said someone taking part by speakerphone at 11:58 a.m.
Agency statistician Doug Flohr made the announcement and also talked about this year's conditions for growing almonds.
He said the bloom in late February and early March was shorter than usual, but the bees still got the job done. The crop then survived windy weather in April and, in some places, will need to be irrigated from wells because of short river supplies.
Modesto Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2385.