California’s latest star to take the world by storm comes from nowhere near the bright lights of Los Angeles. Out of the fertile central valley region, where the Mediterranean climate provides the perfect growing conditions, the California almond has risen to become the top nut in the world, with fans in virtually every region and culture.
Canadians count as the top California almond eaters per capita, consuming an average of 1.62 pounds per person per year. In China and India, emerging middle-class masses have discovered a taste for snacking on the healthy nut. In the Middle East, and Mediterranean nations such as Spain, a long history of almond eating has shifted to the California variety.
“Almonds are aspirational. They are not like a peanut,” said Richard Waycott, president and CEO of the Almond Board of California, who credits the growing global appetite for healthy foods for turning the tiny tree nut into a booming $3 billion business. Almonds now rank as California’s leading agriculture export, and one of the top 10 food exports in all of the United States. More than 80% of the world’s supply of almonds come from California.
Made up of 6,000 individual growers, the California almond industry is a well-oiled machine. In 2011, the industry produced just shy of two billion pounds of almonds, a major milestone that it hopes to soon cross. That is double the production of a just decade ago. The Almond Board, formed in 1950 to promote and protect the industry, takes the lead in marketing worldwide, and has representatives in India, the United Kingdom and China. Targeting health professionals, food manufacturers and consumers, its focus has been on promoting the benefits of almonds as a healthy and nutritious ingredient and snack.
The strategy of moving the almond up the food chain from something that tastes good to something good for you, is working. “We’ve had 10 years of unprecedented growth,” said Waycott.
China is its No. 1 market, followed by India and Spain. Markets identified as being ripe for growth include Brazil, Mexico and the Middle East. “Where almonds are gaining in popularity is in areas where the population now has the economic means to purchase them,” Waycott said.
And those emerging, upscale snackers are not only helping to generate record sales and expanded product lines for California almonds – wasabi-flavored almonds, vanilla-almond milk — they are also helping to produce richer growers. California almond growers are seeing average returns between 10%-20% returns on their crops.
Blue Diamond Growers, a cooperative of 3,000 California almond growers, is coming off another record growth year, both in sales and crop production. It sold $825 million worth of almonds in 2011, and expects to be a $1 billion business within the next year or two. It’s ingredients business was up 50%, while its almond snack division was up 19%.
The organization has two state-of-the-art processing plants, in Salida and Sacramento, and is adding a new one nearby in Turlock to accommodate expanded crop supply and export opportunities. For Blue Diamond Growers, and California’s almond industry in general, the sun is shining down on them.