Aussie almond industry to crack greater global market share

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Aussie almond industry to crack greater global market share

Australia's almond growers produced a record crop of 40,000 metric tons (MT) this year despite unseasonal rain that destroyed 100,000 trees due to waterlogging. As the country gears up to surpass Spain as the world's second-largest producer in the coming years, speaks with Almond Board of Australia CEO Ross Skinner about tapping into buoyant international demand.

California is miles ahead of any other region when it comes to almond production with around 82% of the total crop, followed by Spain with 8% and Australia at 3%. But while the Aussies only account for a small fraction of the world's annual almond cultivation, they have the fastest-growing industry.

Skinner has told that tree losses represented a crop loss of 2% this year, but increased plantings - mostly in Western Australia - led to a net tree increase of 3%.

He highlights most of the dead trees will be planted in the coming 12 months, with an expected 62% rise in almond production in 2012.

"The industry is increasing production rapidly with the 2012 crop estimated to be 65,000 (metric) tons, which is an increase of 25,000MT on the previous record tonnage of the last harvest," he says.

"This 62% increase in product availability will be sold on export as the domestic market is steady at around 15,000MT - expanding export sales during a period of record production in both the U.S. and Australia will be challenging, however the U.S. and our marketers are clearing the crops at record pace providing optimism that future returns will improve.

"The improving income position for many Indian families is driving demand in that market and consumer awareness of the health benefits of almonds and other nuts is increasing worldwide consumption leading to strong demand growth."

India is Australia's largest almond market, followed by the United Arab Emirates, New Zealand, Germany and the U.K, but the country is looking for new opportunities and ways to improve competitiveness.

"These [Indian, Middle Eastern and European] markets are expected to grow along with China, other Asian countries and Russia has promise as a developing market.

"The Australian industry is evaluating markets on the basis of best return and our high quality product in years unaffected by rain is highly sought after. Much of the Australian industry's effort is being directed towards producing this high quality product every year regardless of weather conditions - as a highly efficient industry competitive pricing will play a part.

"The Australian industry has a progressive attitude to adopting new technologies to increase efficiency and the industry is looking to enhance its production systems to reduce risk at harvest and deliver a consistent quality product to the market. This has been difficult over the past two years due to harvest rain events."

For a closer look at the country's markets, forecasts, varieties and regional plantings, check out the boards' Australian Almond Statistics 2010 Report.

Investment and counterseasonal demand

Skinner attributes Australia's almond growth to significant new investment in the last 10 years, with expectations this growth will drive Australia to overtake Spain's production by 2015.

"The Australian industry has grown rapidly during the past decade due to large scale investment by managed investment companies and other corporate investors. The industry during this period was attractive due to its profitability, mechanized production systems, readily available land and water and taxation benefits for investors," he says.

"The maturing Australian orchard will continue to increase tree yields until eight years after planting, and therefore the industry's production will increase for some years to come and the plantings in the mid 2000's and beyond will continue to drive record production as an annual event."

He says counterseasonal demand plays a part in Australia's market opportunities, but is not as relevant as with other horticultural products.

"The counterseasonal aspect of southern hemisphere production does convey some benefits of new season product for some of the major religious festivals but the long life of nuts lessens the counterseasonal advantage from that held by short lived fruit and vegetable crops."

Production issues

Skinner says Australia's almond production follows the Californian model, which through mechanization means labor availability is not a significant issue.

"The Australian industry has been based on the production and processing systems developed in California. In recent years the need for water use efficiency has seen the Australian industry develop its own irrigation and nutrition practices but the major varieties and harvesting technologies originate in California.

"The Australian and Californian industries are very similar but compared to Spain the differences arevarieties, rootstocks, irrigation, and nutrition - all leading to smaller trees in Spain, though new plant material from their research organizations has great potential."

Australian Honey Bee Council says the almond industry could be one of the biggest victims of Australia's Asian Honey Bee incursion, but Skinner says the extent of the threat is still uncertain.

"Pollination is a key production activity and exotic pest incursions are a major threat to this. The Australian industry is investing in research to increase the efficiency of pollination so that it can be achieved with fewer hives," he says.

"Self fertile varieties are also a long term strategy for managing this risk. In the short term a containment program has been developed for the Asian Honey Bee incursion in Queensland and its survival in southern climates is as yet unclear."

Skinner says there have been challenges, both climatic and financial, but almond farming and markets are looking strong for the future.

"Returns for growers are expected to be AUD$4.10 (US$4.06) per kilogram (2.2lbs), down on previous years mainly due to impact of strong Australian dollar which has been above parity with the U.S. dollar for most of the marketing year and at times close to US$1.10.

"Other challenges were the rain in January causing flooding of orchards and rain at harvest delaying pick-up. The record rain statistics for the year has increased disease pressure that has for the most part been well managed.

"The steep rise in production from plantings in the past decade is being matched by the increase in world demand."

Photos: Australian Almond Board

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