Australia’s almond industry is booming

ALMONDS are booming along the banks of the River Murray as the industry swells its market share as the world’s second largest exporter.

“At the moment there’s great profitability in growing almonds and when people are investing in horticulture they want to see that there’s great demand,” the Riverland-based chief of the Almond Board of Australia, Ross Skinner, says.

“That’s occurring here in the Australian market but also globally.”

As the number of orchards planted nationally explodes, South Australia is established at its epicentre.

Latest figures soon to be released by the almond board show there’s been a 15.8 per cent increase in orchards planted across the nation in 2016, to now total 35,886 hectares.

And South Australia is home to 20 per cent of plantings that are mainly in the Riverland where the industry’s national board recently moved into the new Loxton Research Centre.

The board’s annual Almond Insights report projects that plantings would swell even further to 50,000 hectares nationally in the next few years after last year’s export crop alone pulled in $464 million.

Mr Skinner believes it is only the beginning as huge potential beckons domestically and overseas particularly in the power house export markets of China and India.

At the moment, there’s a vast gap between the United States’ lion share of 80 per cent of the global market and Australia’s humble seven per cent.

Yet America’s heavy investment in marketing and in growing the world market to double its size in the past decade means Australian industry can ride on its export coat tails.

“The American industry is such a dominant player, they are prepared to invest heavily in market development, they invest something like US $75 million in developing market share around the world every year,” Mr Skinner said.

It means there’s more pie to share and Australia is committed to grasping a larger piece as its own new investments get underway.

When the national almond board moved its headquarters from Berri in the Riverland to a purpose-built facility at Loxton late last year, it arrived with a State Government grant to turn a neighbouring 60ha block into a world-leading research site.

Mr Skinner says work is advanced with the research orchard ready for planting in August so the industry can, importantly, concentrate more on its own research and development.

“What we did (in developing the industry) was take technology available in California and utilise it here in Australia,” he said.

“Our soils aren’t as fertile as the central valley in California and our rainfall is more unpredictable here.”

Now it was time to “start from scratch” and explore how the local industry can optimise its own unique attributes, including further research into new varieties, water efficiency and a focus on plant density.

There is further investment afoot, with businesses expanding orchards and companies like Costa Bros in Swan Reach opening a $6 million cracking and hulling plant in May, saying it could increase the immediate region’s capacity from 8,000 to 22,000 tonnes a year.

South Australia also has orchards on the Adelaide Plains and Willunga while the other key production areas are in Victoria’s Sunraysia region and the Riverina in New South Wales.

Mr Skinner says as the almond’s star rises as a premium health food there are also substantial inroads being made in newer product lines like almond meal as a substitute for gluten offerings and almond milk for lactose.

More than 9,000 new products landed on supermarket shelves around the world last year using almonds as an ingredient with more than 200 of those in Australia.

Nut Producers of Australia chief executive and almond board committee member Grant Birrell is also confident there’s huge potential on the horizon.

His trip to China’s largest food exhibition SIAL in May helped confirm export opportunities with Mr Birrell saying Australia’s new trade agreement with China would help as export duties on almonds disappeared by June 2019.

“There’s also an emerging middle class, you go to a place like Shanghai and I can clearly see the more affluent people moving toward a more western style taste and attitude toward health and fitness and almonds are nature’s health pill,” he says.

“It will also continue to grow in India, almonds are a traditional food in India and the economy is growing so there’s an increasing middle class.

“They are two very, very large potential markets.”

Grower and processor Nut Producers Australia was formed in 2004 when Riverland Almonds and Australian Pioneer Pistachios merged management and sales functions, it now exports to 16 countries.

Most nuts are grown by its shareholders and directors, who are confident the industry is moving forward.

“(The new research centre) is a massive achievement by the board and will take the almond industry forward in a big way,” Mr Birrell said.

“The industry is going to expand by 50 per cent in the next five to eight years.”