CEO: Innovation, exports to guide almond rebound

Facing challenging times, California’s almond industry is looking to expand foreign export markets and increase the diversity of almond products in domestic supermarkets.

That is the strategic roadmap outlined by Almond Board of California President and CEO Clarice Turner.

In a media briefing this month commemorating her first 100 days at the helm of the promotional organization for California’s $3.5 billion almond sector, Turner outlined steps to grow markets as almond prices plummet and farmers reduce acreage.

She said the almond board hired the business and marketing firm Deloitte to conduct a study “to look at what we are currently doing and to identify opportunities for future growth.”

What that process has identified, she said, is a working plan to significantly grow almond exports to India and to emerging markets such as Indonesia, Turkey and Morocco.

In addition, she said, the state’s almond sector hopes to grow its array of almond products, developing demand for innovations from oils to flours to perhaps even almond pastas.

“We intend to dig in and inspire innovation in this space because there’s so many different places it could go,” Turner said.

She added, “I really hope that almond pasta will take off because I missed my pasta, and I stopped eating carbs a long time ago.”

Such aspirations underscore a quest for solutions to address troubling economic trends confronting California almond growers in recent years.

Ten years ago, prices for premium almonds were nearly $4 per pound. Now they are $2 per pound or less.

Last year, total almond plantings in the state dropped from 1.64 million acres to 1.55 million acres, the second consecutive decline. While actual bearing acreage inched up slightly in 2023, the exponential growth that saw bearing acreage boom from 760,000 acres in 2011 to 1.3 million in 2022 may be a thing of the past.

While the current “macro environment is very, very difficult” for the almond sector, Turner said she envisions the industry rebounding with new products and expanded markets.

She said a key recommendation of Deloitte consultants is to make a major push to grow almond exports to India, which is now roughly equal in population to China with more than 1.4 billion people.

Turner said health-conscious diets in India and the fact that more than 50% of the population is younger than 30 makes the country a “very attractive market to us.”

India is already the top market for California almonds, buying $854 million worth of almonds in 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

India market prospects have only brightened since last September, when the country lifted 20% retaliatory tariffs imposed in 2019 on almonds and other U.S. agricultural products in response to the Trump administration’s tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.

In another positive development for California nut exports, the United Kingdom on April 11 suspended tariffs of 4% on in-shell almonds and 2% on raw kernels that had been in place since the UK left the European Union in 2021.

Turner said the UK tariff suspension, currently for two years, will provide about $4 million in trade relief by making California almonds more competitive in the country, which remains a key entry point for the European market.

She said the almond board continues its work to ease trade barriers “all around the world,” including “actively working with China” to gain greater market access there.

“Almonds are such a nutritionally dense plant-based protein,” Turner said. “I would love to make them accessible to more people across the world.”

Turner, who most recently served as president of Joseph Phelps Vineyard in Napa Valley and has held senior executive positions with Boudin Bakery, Starbucks and PepsiCo, succeeds retiring almond board CEO Richard Waycott.

She noted that her early tenure has coincided with difficult times for almond farmers as wholesale earnings for the nut “are at one of the least expensive price points that they have been at in many years.”

While that should be good news for consumers facing high food costs due to inflation, Turner said, the low almond price “unfortunately is not getting passed on to consumers.”

Retailer Trader Joe’s dropped its retail almond price by a dollar to $3.99 per pound, she said. “At least there’s a glimmer of hope there,” Turner said. “I hope other retailers will follow.”

As the industry faces challenges, Turner said the almond board is reshaping its marketing efforts to counter “this whole perception about Big Ag almond growers.”

The almond board continues to stress that “90% of our farms in California are owned by families and, of those farms, 70% of them are less than 100 acres,” she said.

This marketing push extends to publicizing conservation efforts by growers who have reduced the amount of water needed to grow an almond by 33% between the 1990s and the 2010s, with a goal of another 15% water-use reduction by 2025.

Promotional efforts also focus on environmental stewardship, as the almond board disseminates reports that California almond orchards now sequester more than 30 million metric tons of carbon a year—equal to removing 2.45 million cars or taking 2,029 coal-fired plants offline.

Such data is part of Turner’s pitch as she weaves the California almond narrative for domestic audiences and on international trade missions, including her recent outreach efforts in India, where she said people were “totally impressed with the volume and quality” of California almonds.

Despite current difficulties for the sector, “We are very bullish on what’s ahead for the almond industry,” Turner said. “California is the best place to grow almonds, and we are renowned around the world.”

(Peter Hecht is chief editor of publications for the California Farm Bureau. He may be contacted at [email protected].)

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