Despite California’s drought,
almond growers expanded their orchards by an estimated 60,000 acres in 2015,
marking the 12th consecutive year of growth for the crop, which now covers more
than 1.1 million acres, or more than any other fruit, nut or vegetable crop in
Why? Because almonds make money.
While recognizing the ongoing
drought may constrain current and future planting, industry experts said that
almonds and other tree nuts provided a good return for farmers, who responded
by putting more trees in the ground. In 2003 the state had 610,000 acres of
almond orchards, according to U.S. National Agricultural Statistics Service
estimates. Annual growth since then has averaged nearly 42,000 acres a year.
Strong global demand, fueled in part by the emerging middle class in developing nations, lifted prices for tree nuts including almonds.
“Almonds in the long haul are an
attractive return on investment for growers,” said Robert Curtis, director of
agricultural affairs for the Almond Board of California.
And that kept farmers planting new orchards, even when faced with water cuts, he said.
“I have limited water resources …
and the only way I can make money is irrigating my almonds, which provide a
good return,” Curtis said in explaining a farmer’s thinking.
To Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, that kind of thinking fails to recognize the state’s tenuous water supply.
“In a Mediterranean climate, you
would think that you wouldn’t be expanding permanent crops, water-thirsty
permanent crops that couldn’t be fallowed in case of emergency,” he said.
That applies especially in the San Joaquin Valley, south of San Joaquin County, in areas dependent on the federal Central Valley Project and State Water Project.
“Water exported south, under the
state and federal contacts, is by definition an interruptible source of water,”
Jennings said. “What is the wisdom of planting crops that cannot be fallowed?”
Reported almond plantings over
the past three years have been highest in the south Valley, the federal study
shows. That includes Fresno County with nearly 15,600 acres, Kern County with
nearly 12,800 acres of new almond orchards and Merced County, more than 10,000
acres.While the federal acreage report
shows growing almond acreage in past, Curtis said the present and future trends
may well be different.
“No doubt there are areas in the state where there is going to be a readjustment given the tenuous nature of … No. 1 the availability of water and No 2 the quality of water,” he said.
Curtis also noted that farmers
must plan and order tree seedlings two years before they are planted.
“So plants going in in the fourth
year of a drought (2015) were planned for and ordered in the second year
(2013),” he said. “It remains to be seen how many trees will be ordered in the
fourth year of the drought.” Gov. Jerry Brown’s declaration of a drought
emergency came in January 2014.
Almonds are the state’s leading
farm export. California produces about 80 percent of the world supply. Also,
almonds were San Joaquin County’s most-valuable cash crop in 2014, with a
harvest worth nearly $579 million, according to the county Agricultural