Thanks to the Soviet sweet tooth, California's almond growers--saddled with a bulging inventory--appear to be on their way to a sold-out 1985-86 crop. In fact, the Russian freighter Novotroitsk began taking on the year's last shipment of California almonds at the Port of Los Angeles on Thursday before weighing anchor today for Leningrad.
"We've really turned this (inventory) thing around," Roger J. Baccigaluppi, president of the California Almond Growers Exchange, said in an interview aboard the Novotroitsk. "Next year's crop will be a problem not of too much but of not enough almonds," Baccigaluppi predicted.
California, which produces the entire U.S. crop of almonds, harvested a record 587 million pounds of almond kernels last year--60% of it marketed by the California Almond Growers Exchange under its Blue Diamond label. That bountiful harvest produced 100 million more pounds of nuts than had been forecast and more than doubled the very poor 1983 crop of 242 million pounds.
As a consequence, about 100 million pounds of almonds were carried over into the current crop year, which began July 1.
Exceeds Previous Record
Since then, however, the Soviet Union has bought $62.5 million worth of almonds, exceeding in less than half a year the previous annual record of $50 million and rivaling West Germany as California's best almond customer, Baccigaluppi said. Moreover, the current crop is expected to total a more manageable 455 million pounds, bringing supply more closely into line with the growing demand for almonds abroad. That's important for California, since almonds are the state's leading agricultural export, followed closely by oranges and grapes.
The Russians traditionally buy hazelnuts from Turkey for use in chocolate candy, Baccigaluppi said. Blue Diamond persuaded them to switch to almonds several years ago, however, after Turkey had a short hazelnut crop that boosted prices significantly above California almonds.
The Novotroitsk, which arrived in Los Angeles on Thursday morning from Nicaragua, will leave this afternoon for Veracruz, Mexico, before heading for icebound Leningrad. Capt. Boris Bondarev said he expects to reach his home port by mid-February. In its hold, the freighter will be carrying 100 gray containers loaded with $4.2 million worth of Blue Diamond almonds drawn from the exchange's stocks in Fullerton, each container marked Soviet Railways , which will carry the 1,500 tons of almonds to confectionaries for processing into chocolate bars.
Russians now consume almonds mainly as an ingredient in candy, but Blue Diamond hopes to persuade them of its nutritional value as a foodstuff. "We did a sort of show-and-tell with them, showing all the different ways we can use almonds," Baccigaluppi said.
The importance of the Soviet Union to California's almond growers is only the latest chapter in development of overseas almond markets. Exports have increased significantly over the years from an average of 4.5 million pounds of kernels sold abroad annually in the early 1950s to 13.4 million pounds in the early 1960s, 68.3 million pounds in the early '70s, 186.9 million pounds in 1980 and 266.8 million pounds last year. That growth occurred despite the strong dollar and the unfavorable exchange rates it generated, and major competition from Spain and Italy--though foreign growers produce only about half of California's present almond crop.
With the exceptions of only 1970 and 1972, export sales have exceeded annual domestic almond sales every year since almond exports began to take off in the late 1960s, according to the Almond Board of California, a grower-financed body that promotes almond consumption.