Tom Vilsack's great-aunt in Iowa had a thing for almonds.
"She believed that if she consumed seven almonds a day, she would avoid cancer," the nation's agriculture secretary said in a phone interview Wednesday. "She lived to be 93."
Vilsack spoke from the 40th annual conference of the Almond Board of California, which moved to Sacramento this year after outgrowing the Modesto Centre Plaza.
President Barack Obama's right-hand man on farm issues came out to celebrate a crop that is a key part of the Northern San Joaquin Valley economy. It also is a fast-growing part of farm exports.
"I think the best export days are ahead for this industry," Vilsack said. "There's just a tremendous opportunity for growth."
U.S. exports of almonds and other tree nuts will hit a record $7 billion next year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture projected last month. That would double the figure for 2009.
Almost all of those nuts will come from California, where almonds were the top farm export in 2010 at $2.4 billion, according to state figures. Walnuts and pistachios made the top six.
The USDA projected total farm exports for the nation at $145 billion next year, up from $96 billion in 2009. Grains, soybeans, meat and dairy products account for two-thirds of that.
"For the last 50 years, we've had a surplus in agricultural trade, but nothing like what we've seen in the last four years," Vilsack said.
That surplus eases some of the impact to the economy from the nation's overall trade deficit. Buyers of foreign cars, clothes, electronics and other goods pushed it to $42.2 billion for October, the U.S. Department of Commerce reported Tuesday.
The secretary got an idea of the almond industry's health on a morning walk through the Sacramento Convention Center, site of the three-day gathering.
The 2,000-plus attendees could talk with people selling tree seedlings, fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation equipment, harvesting machines and other things farmers need to grow the crop. Ag researchers, lenders and insurers were on hand, too.
Dave Long, a grower and processor near Ballico, said the average price is about $2.75 per pound for nonpareil almonds, the main variety, which is a relatively high level.
"Demand is staying right along with the supply," he said.
Vilsack cited research by his department that has aided the industry, such as trees that self-pollinate to reduce the need to rent bee colonies each winter. The USDA has helped get almonds into foreign markets through trade agreements and other means, he said.