Central Valley walnut growers are shaking the second-largest crop ever from their trees, undeterred by the recent windy storm.
"The weather is beautiful since we had that rain," grower John Kidd said Friday from his farm west of Modesto.
Prospects look sunny for the industry, thanks to an uptick in demand that has reduced the inventory carried over from last year's record crop. Shipments to buyers from the 2008 crop were 23 percent higher than in 2007, according to the California Walnut Commission.
Kidd, who also serves on the Modesto Irrigation District board, said growers could earn perhaps 75 to 80 cents a pound. That's down from the spike in 2007, when the crop was light, but better than the low prices early in this decade.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects a crop of 415,000 tons from California, down 4.4 percent from last year but better than any other year. The state produces virtually all of the U.S. walnut crop and about 40 percent of the world supply.
The industry continues to tout the health benefits of walnuts, once considered a fatty indulgence but now part of the fight against heart disease and obesity.
John Mundt, co-owner of Alpine Pacific Nut Co. near Hughson, said the industry was slowed by the global economic crisis.
"We see that things are starting to pick up," he said. "Domestic is a little slow to react. The hottest markets right now are export — China and Turkey."
Those two nations have a growing demand for in-shell walnuts, the kind that consumers crack themselves, Mundt said.
The majority of nuts are cracked by processors and sold in snack bags, in packages for home cooks or as ingredients in products such as breakfast cereal, ice cream and bakery goods.
Walnuts bring in only about a third of the gross farm income that almonds do in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, but they nonetheless are among its major crops. From late August to late November, growers use machines to shake the trees and sweep the fallen nuts into trucks. They then go to hullers to have the outer husk removed, to dehydrators to achieve the proper moisture content, and finally to processing plants for inspection and packaging.
The recent storm, which dropped nearly 2 inches of rain on Modesto, raised concern because the soil needs to be dry for the harvest to take place.
"It's the weather after the storm that is going to be more important," said Yolo County processor Martin Mariani, a member of the walnut commission, during that Oct. 13 deluge.
Sure enough, the days that followed were mostly sunny, allowing the harvest to resume.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2385.