Why the Board and Commission are Important to the California Walnut Industry

By Dr. Jerome Siebert

Dr. Jerome Siebert shares his perspective on the California Walnut Board and Commission. 

Since the 1970s when I was first appointed to the California Walnut Board as a public member alternate, I have observed many changes that have taken place in the California walnut industry.  These changes have taken place with relative calm and stability and have benefited both growers and handlers.  One of the major changes to take place has been the increase in acres of walnuts planted and the size of the crop that must be marketed on an annual basis.  One can logically ask what does a federal marketing order and state commission have to do with promoting stability and growth in an industry.  The answer is “a lot!”

The California Walnut Board (CWB) was established in 1948 to represent the walnut growers and handlers of California. The Board is a successor of an organization that began some 15 years earlier, the Walnut Control Board, which was designed to organize our industry into a cohesive unit.  Compared to many other commodities that are grown in California, the walnut industry has been one that has worked together to overcome problems and challenges and provide a significant optimistic outlook for the orderly marketing of and increasing volume.

Key to the success of an orderly marketing program has been the establishment of the  California Walnut Commission (CWC)  which was formed in 1987 to take advantage of the newly founded Trade Export Assistance program (TEA), a federal grant program which was the predecessor to MAP (Market Access Program). The TEA program was a great opportunity for specialty crops thus, with the passage of Assembly Bill 547 and a subsequent grower referendum in which 89% of those voting endorsed it, the CWC was formed.  Together, the CWC and CWB have formed a team that has benefitted both growers and handlers by promoting stability and introduction of market expansion opportunities.

When the CWB was first conceived, it was to help the farmers maintain stable farm supply through volume control. The industry came together and provided a method for stabilizing what could have been a volatile market for a small specialty crop. Today, the CWB can still exercise volume control but it has chosen with the assistance of the CWC to promote market expansion to accommodate an ever increasing production.  It also continues to provide stability through its establishment of food safety, grades and standards, and production research. Production research has been a key component to the growth of the entire industry resulting in achievements such as new cultivars like the Tulare, the Howard, and the Chandler which are the top three varieties from the breeding program, new rootstocks like the nematode tolerant Paradox, and higher density plantings. Through food safety and grades and standards the Board has improved production practices creating a product known throughout the world for the highest quality. All these achievements have helped the growers produce more and better walnuts.

Initially, the focus of the CWC was to increase demand in key export markets through the TEA program. In 1985, little more than 20% of the walnut crop was exported.  Today nearly 60% of the crop finds its way into the export market. Increased demand overseas has led to all time high prices as well. New market access and development has been an important achievement of the CWC as well. By educating government officials, the CWC has been able to influence trade policies that benefit the industry such as opening new markets (India) and sustaining markets like Japan and Korea.

While the CWC still strives to increase consumption in these markets, increase in demand is fueled largely by another unique CWC activity, health research. Over 95 studies supported by the CWC have been published. This health research earned walnuts the first whole food qualified health claim from the FDA, the AHA Heart-Check mark, and the only nut specific health claim for blood flow from the European Union. These studies are promoted here in the U.S. and in our export markets driving awareness which leads to increased demand. In some markets over 50% of the public relations media coverage about walnuts is health related. Prior to the health research program, market research in the US showed that few consumers liked walnuts for their health benefits. In 2011, attitude and research studies showed that health is the #1 reason consumers buy walnuts. Additionally, 61% of consumers report buying more walnuts than they did 5 years ago because of the health benefits.

The CWB and CWC have different roles in the industry, but they both work in concert with other to promote the same goals: to increase economic demand for California walnuts and to make it the most efficient and competitive one in the world thus ensuring its long run viability and success.Through core activities such as production research, food safety, export market development and health research, the CWC and CWB work together to create a perfect storm of industry growth. Higher yields per tree and per acre, increased demand from new and existing markets and a reputation for the highest quality have resulted staggering growth anda crop worth over $1billion in farm gate value. The relative low amount of investment to fund the activities and programs of both the CWB and CWC have borne significant benefits for producers and handlers and have provided a significant element of stability and growth for the industry.  Their programs are most deserving of continued support from producers and handlers for long term sustainable benefits.