If you are thinking about going nuts, this is the wrong year to do it. After last year's record harvests, California's two leading nut crops are significantly down this year.
In addition to the usual suspect (El You-Know-Who), you can also blame tired trees.
Almonds, California's sixth-leading agricultural crop, are now projected for a harvest of about 270,000 tons--well below last year's record 378,000 tons and down from the five-year-average of 280,000 tons.
"We had very cool weather during pollination," says Heidi Savage of the California Almond Board. "But almonds are also alternate-bearing trees. After a really big year, the next year is usually shorter."
You don't see big displays of almonds in produce departments in this country; they show up mostly in cereals and candies. But California produces roughly 80% of the world's almond crop, and in 1996 (the last year for which statistics are available), that was enough to earn more than $1 billion. That's more than tomatoes, strawberries or oranges.
California's other leading nut crop, walnuts, was done in by the late-season heat. Spring projections of this harvest had a haul of about 255,000 tons--not that much worse than last year's record 269,000.
But then came a long spell of blistering weather. Walnuts, like walnut growers, are susceptible to sunburn, which leaves black marks on the shells and can shrivel the meat. By the time the late-August estimate was released, the crop was down to 220,000 tons.
The big surprise in nut-land--and the only crop that's up from last year--is pistachios. Growers were expecting a moderate harvest at best. But when the official estimate came out, it was for 97,000 tons--even better than last year's record of 89,500 tons.
"It came as a total surprise to everybody; we were shocked when the number came out," says Karen Reinecke of the California Pistachio Commission. "We're still trying to figure out how it happened."
The best guess credits the boom to the pistachio's late pollination period. Most nuts pollinated in March, when the weather was wet, windy and cool. Pistachios pollinated in April this year--by and large a nice month in a very weird spring.
Of course, pistachios have always been notoriously difficult to predict. In the early '90s, there were back-to-back years when estimates were off by more than 40%. It's enough to make you, um, crazy.
FARMERS' MARKET REPORT
The Dry Dock booth at the Sunday farmers' market in Palos Verdes looks almost like a scene from a European market with its display of sparkling fresh fish--both whole and filets. The company operates six fishing boats from Santa Barbara to Eureka and farms mussels off Carlsbad and clams off Morro Bay. All of the catch goes to farmer's markets. On this particular morning, it includes a wide range of rock cod--including whole cabezon (perfect for starting a fish stew) and onaga--spiny lobster, sea bass, scallops, shark, ahi, yellowtail, opah and spot prawns as well as the previously mentioned shellfish.
Right next door, you can buy different olives and olive products from Ciara, a company that normally sells its products in high-end grocery stores and delis. Particularly good are the pitted agrinion olives cured with sun-dried tomatoes and the red pepper spread.
Top Knot Farms from San Luis Obispo has great peppers as well as haricots verts, yellow string beans and fresh cranberry beans. Yasutomi Farms from Pico Rivera has hydroponically grown arugula, butter, green leaf and romaine lettuces as well as komatsuma, or Japanese spinach, and mizuna. There are also field-grown garlic chives, tsurumurasaki (described as being like a cross between spinach and broccoli) and okra leaf. Rosendahl's from Sanger has pluots; Ryan's Sun peaches and Arctic Snow white nectarines.