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Almond harvest on par as exports beckon

Business

This year’s almond harvest is all but complete in South Australia with mild conditions leading to average yields and large kernel sizes.

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But, after boom times in recent years, growers are expecting a 25-30 per cent fall in returns this year because of a bumper Californian crop in August coupled with a rising Australian dollar.

South Australia grows about a quarter of Australia’s almonds with the bulk being produced in Victoria and New South Wales.

Harvest takes place from about the middle of February to the first week in April and while yields this year were on par with 2020, the total crop is up by about 10 per cent due to recent plantings reaching maturity.

Australian exports were up 26 per cent to $772 million in 2019/20 with Asia, Europe, New Zealand and the Middle East typically the biggest markets.

Renmark-based grower co-operative Almondco sources almonds from about 80 per cent of Australian growers.

Its annual in-take from growers in SA, Victoria, NSW and WA at its three processing plants make up about 30 per cent of the national production.

Almondco managing director Brenton Woolston said the company had about 200 staff working across its sites – two in the Riverland and one in the Riverina region of NSW – at this time of year.

He said the larger kernels, particularly in the main variety nonpareil, would place much of this year’s crop at the premium end of the market but was a factor in the overall yield not quite meeting grower estimates in most areas.

“California has grown a monster crop of average to small almond kernels this year and ours are more medium to large, which gets us a few more dollars,” he said.

“Visually the trees looked like they had more on them than they actually did because the almonds were larger but there were fewer of them.

“It’s still a reasonable crop.”

Australia is the second-largest almond producer in the world behind the United States, which produces more than 10 times the Australian tonnage.

Prices for the commodity are largely determined by the United States because of its market dominance and almonds are traded in US dollars.

The Californian crop picked in August was up 22 per cent on the previous year and continued strong global demand has led to a 16 per cent increase in US export to record levels.

Woolston said this had led to a 20 per cent fall in prices, which had been further impacted by the rising value of the Australian dollar.

“Last year the average exchange rate for the 2020 season was 68 cents but this year we’re at 78 cents so that 10 cents almost wipes out $2 a kilo straight away just in foreign exchange movements,” he said.

“We’re probably 25-30 per cent off where we’ve been in the past year or so.

“Returns have been quite solid over the last five years and this is an adjustment based on record global supply and a global pandemic but also stimulated by record demand and new supply routes for almonds in general.”

Almondco is on track to process about 30,000 tonnes this year but expects this figure to grow to almost 50,000 in the next three years when a $28.5 million Renmark processing plant expansion comes online and a flurry of plantings across major growing regions reach maturity.

It exports about 60 per cent of its production to 40 destinations with Western Europe, the Middle East and Asia the largest markets.

However, Woolston said one issue confronting exporters at the moment was the difficulty in getting shipments on the water.

“The whole supply chain on ocean freight is gridlocked so it’s been very hard to get booking space out of the country at the moment and it’s been going on for six months or more where the whole system is choked up – it’s a global issue but it’s really impacting Australian exporters,” he said.

“We’ve got the horsepower to receive and pack and the demand is there to ship but we can’t get a ship.”

“There’s no glut – demand for the product is good, we’ve just got to get it out of the country somehow.”

Overall, Woolston is “very optimistic”.

“Almond orchards are planted for the long term – it’s not a short-term crop – so you’d expect over a 20-25 year investment in an orchard that you’re going to have some ups and downs and we’ve had mainly average to good periods over the last couple of years,” he said.

“It’s been a bit of a downer this year on price but we’re not one-year wonders, we’re in it for the long haul.”

Almond trees take about seven years to reach full maturity. About a quarter of Australia’s plantings are yet to reach maturity as citrus and stone fruit growers transition to almonds.

Renmark grower Jim Sourtzis is from a family that has traditionally grown stone fruit but is switching into almonds.

His orchards of the self-pollinating variety Independence are in their fourth season and are not reliant on bees for production.

Late last month he said he was on track to achieve close to 2.5 tonnes to the hectare, “which is where we’d like to be”.

Sourtzis said the goal was to produce four tonnes to the hectare over the next two or three years.

“This being our fourth harvest and being a single variety management system where you can maintain your fertiliser regime and your irrigation across the whole orchard makes it a lot easier to manage,” he said.

“We’re getting close to wrapping up the season so we’re looking forward to a little bit of time off and getting into the next season ahead with some post-season fertilising and management before the trees shutdown.”

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