By Hayley Boriss and Henrich Brunke, Agricultural Issues Center, University of California.
Updated July 2013 by Diane Huntrods, AgMRC, Iowa State University.
The earliest varieties of almonds are native to western Asia. Spanish explorers brought almonds to the United States, but commercial almond production did not begin to flourish until the 1900s, primarily in California. By 1977, the United States had surpassed Spanish production, and by 2000, the country had became the leading supplier of almonds worldwide.
California is the only state that produces almonds commercially. The 2012 almond crop totaled 2.0 billion pounds, a 2 percent drop from the previous year, and was valued at $4.3 billion, an 8 percent increase from 2011 (NASS 2013). Per person consumption of almonds in the United States has generally been increasing and reached 1.8 pounds in 2011 (Almond Board of California).
The United States remains the largest producer of almonds, harvesting 80 percent of the world's crop, followed by the European Union - 27, mainly Spain, and Australia, which each harvest 6 percent (Almond Board of California).
The increased promotion of almonds as a nutritional product and as an ingredient in a variety of food segment areas such as snacks, cereals, confections and desserts has helped to expand marketing opportunities. In more recent years, government procurement programs have become a viable market for almonds (Almond Board of California).
Like many U.S. agricultural commodities, the USDA provides federal oversight for the handling of almonds. An almond marketing order established the Almond Board of California, which administers the provisions of the order under USDA supervision. Funded by a 3.0 cent “checkoff” for each pound of almonds entering the marketplace, the Almond Board uses these funds to expand markets, fund production research and increase marketing promotion.
In an effort to control over-supply and stabilize prices in a saturated market, the almond marketing order established the almond reserve. In years where large almond crops are expected to significantly depress prices, the almond reserve can require a percentage of almonds be withheld from handling and diverted to low-paying secondary outlets. The Almond Board of California makes yearly recommendations to the Secretary of the USDA on the percentage of saleable almonds, if any, to be removed from the market and placed into reserve. Growers can eliminate the order or amend the provisions by a two-thirds vote.
The almond tree has an average life span of 20 to 25 years and does not bear fruit during the first 3 to 4 years after planting. Additionally, almond trees are alternate bearing so that a large crop one year is often followed by a lighter crop the following year.
Typically producers plant multiple varieties of almond trees to capitalize on the beneficial effects from cross pollination and rely on bees to fertilize almond blossoms. Nonpareil is the single largest variety planted (39%), followed by the Monterey variety (12%) (Almond Board of California).
Almond production has continued to increase over time. Improvements in efficiency and technology have had a dramatic effect on increasing almonds yields. Overall yields of California orchards have increased. Advances in tree varieties, planting patterns, mechanization and orchard agronomy have been responsible for some of the increased yields per acre.
Encased in a tough, leathery hull and an inner, protective hard shell, almonds are mechanically shaken from the tree during the fall harvest and sent to handlers to be processed and marketed as a final product. In 2011 approximately 100 handlers shipped 1.6 billion pounds of almonds, a 13 percent increase from the previous year (Almond Board of California). The world’s largest almond handler is the Blue Diamond Growers Cooperative, which is located in Sacramento, California. Blue Diamond is owned by over two-thirds of California growers and markets one-third of California’s crop (Blue Diamond).
In the United States, the majority of almonds are consumed as ingredients in manufactured goods including cereal and granola bars, while remaining consumption takes place in the form of snacks, in home baking and food service outlets. The expanding consumer palate for foreign dishes and a growing Middle Eastern population may also help increase demand for almonds due to the use of almonds in many international cuisines.
New branded products and new uses of almonds in cereals, ice cream, confectionaries and baked goods have been introduced. One product provided 100-calorie packs for healthy snacking, another expanded a line of wheat-free crackers made of nuts and yet another, almond milk, offered a low-fat, non-dairy alternative for consumers who prefer to avoid dairy products.
Another new use of almonds in this country features the not-yet-ripe kernels of green almonds. They are harvested early, and the liquid kernels used by chefs at gourmet restaurants to add a delicate taste to high-end dishes.
Almonds are either sold as in-shell or as processed, which can include shelling, dry roasting, blanching, slicing, chopping and conversion into flour, paste (marzipan) or flavorings. The majority of almonds are shelled during processing, and the excess casings (the hull and shell) are used in the livestock industry for both feed and bedding material.
In addition to being a good source of protein, almonds have also been marketed as a good source of Vitamin E, dietary fiber and monounsaturated fat—the latter of which has been associated with decreased risk of heart disease (Almond Board of California).
Scientific evidence continues to mount suggesting that a regular diet of almonds may help maintain healthy hearts, reduce weight, prevent diabetes, fight arthritis, inhibit tumor cell growth and may even help lower the risk of Alzheimer's.
The United States is the dominant supplier of almonds. In 2012, the country exported about 692,270 metric tons (MT) of the nuts, a 9 percent increase from the previous year, which were valued at $3.4 billion, a 20 percent rise from 2011. About 70 percent of U.S. almonds are exported as shelled almonds, with the remainder being either unshelled or manufactured. (FAS)
The Hong Kong/China market, which purchased U.S. almonds valued at $648.9 million in 2012, has become the top destination for U.S. almonds, surpassing the Western European market, previously the leading market (FAS).
The largest export market for unshelled almonds remained India, mostly because the country can shell imported almonds with cheap labor and market a high-quality processed product. India was also the second largest overall market in 2012, buying U.S. almonds valued at $314.1 million (FAS).
Sales of shelled almonds to Spain and Germany, the two largest export markets for shelled almonds, continued to be strong, due to their use of almonds in the confection industry. Spain purchased U.S. almonds valued at $310.4 million in 2012 and Germany purchased U.S. almonds valued at $262.8 million (FAS).
U.S. imports of almonds remain negligible, reaching 13,125 MT in 2012. However, that quantity was a 126 percent increase from 2011. Most imported almonds come from Spain.
Major concerns include the honeybee supply, which is being decimated by Colony Collapse Disorder and caused the price of rented hives to double; pesticide use and its effect on water quality; and environmental concerns about airborne dust during harvest.
More recently, water availability has become a concern. As access to the water supply declined, some land was fallowed to maintain adequate water for permanent crops.
Almond Almanac, Almond Board of California, 2012 - This annual publication summarizes the production statistics of the California almond industry.
Almonds, Tree Nuts: World Markets & Trade, Foreign Ag Service (FAS), USDA, October 2012.
Nuts, U.S. per capita food availability, ERS, USDA.
Prepared September 2005 and revised July 2013.