When Robert Verloop took his job as CEO of the California Walnut Commission and executive director of the California Walnut Board, people told him, “We’re sorry to see you leave the produce industry.”
Verloop has an impressive background in the produce world, having held leadership positions at companies such as the California Avocado Commission BB #:145028, Sunkist Growers, Inc. BB #:102141, Naturipe Farms BB #:116078, Coastline Family Farms BB #:141488, and Pandol Bros. Inc. BB #:111977.
But, he insists, he didn’t leave the produce industry, because, as the back of his business card says, “#WalnutsAreProduceToo” (complete with hashtag).
“It became self-evident that we had an opportunity to clarify that walnuts are a produce item,” says Verloop.
The walnut industry “has been on a phenomenal growth curve,” says Verloop, but “it’s starting to mature,” forcing it to look for other points of distribution. “We have to make the shift from a distributor model, where we could sell everything we’ve got, to a mature market.”
One current goal is “to expand our promotional activities with the produce department,” says Verloop.
To quote the back of his business card again, “According to a recent survey, 76% of consumers are more likely to buy walnuts when they are displayed with fresh fruits and vegetables.”
There’s a lot of walnuts to market. Current forecasts for this year’s crop are around 720,000 tons.
Last year’s crop came in well in excess of the forecast of 670,000 tons, Verloop points out. In the end, it amounted 725,000-730,000 tons. But that was “an anomaly; normally it’s much closer.”
This year’s crop will probably come in closer to the forecast as a result of heavy heat stress this summer. Nevertheless, he notes, “walnuts are pretty resilient” because of the husk over the shell. “The husk absorbs a lot of the light and sunburning. Only when the husk opens up does the heat affect the shell.”
The walnut industry currently faces a number of challenges. “We’re in a very difficult situation,” says Verloop, with “oversupply, supply chain issues, and retaliatory tariffs.”
Walnuts have been in the commercial news in recent months because of difficulties in shipping the crop out of the Port of Oakland.
At this point, the walnut industry, working with other agricultural interests, is setting up an alternative: loading railcars to go directly to the Port of Los Angeles.
Nevertheless, Verloop says, “there is reason in the long term to continue to be optimistic.”
Walnuts have become a popular planting choice in recent years because of the durability of the crop and the sustainability of the orchards. As Verloop points out, the trees are large, with “beautiful canopies” that “absorb sunlight instead of reflecting it back.” This quality gives growers the opportunity for carbon sequestration credits.
“Our trees are like managed forests,” Verloop points out. “There’s very little cultivation,” and a good soil profile, with “cover crops in place.”
Verloop gives a snapshot of the industry overall:
“Approximately 20% of our crop is shipped ‘in-shell’—with over 90% going to export destination sold in super sacks, sea container loads. Much of that product is then further processed (into halfs, pieces, etc.) by third party/value-added processors in the various export markets. In some key markets, such as Turkey, where walnuts have been part of the culture, tradition and centuries of culinary ‘delight,’ retail stores will have massive displays of whole in-shell bags and bulk walnuts with thousands of pounds on a display.
“Shelled products (in consumer packaging, ready to eat, snack packs, merchandised in the produce and baking aisles) represent 80% of our annual crop, 60% of which is exported, with the balance staying in the USA,” Verloop adds.
In addition to raising the nuts’ profile in the produce sector, Verloop points out developments of new products, many of which “are in their infancy.” These include both sweet and savory snacks as well as
Verloop notes that plant-based meats are starting “to wane a little bit. Consumers want a pure, clean label.” He sees walnut products “not as a replacement for meat but bringing their own great taste to the table.”
Next on the horizon: walnut milk.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story had incorrect figures for amount of the crop shipped “in-shell”, shelled and exported.