Going nuts for almonds

Farmers plant more trees in the face of the water shortage

Despite a raging drought that has yellowed lawns and fallowed crops, orchards of almonds, one of California’s thirstiest crops, are expanding rapidly.

The drought has reduced California’s water supply to an all-time low, prompting officials to mandate strict cutbacks in urban communities. Farmers, who went unaffected by those regulations, say they have made sacrifices by fallowing hundreds of thousands of acres of fields and uprooting almost countless fruit trees, especially in the arid San Joaquin Valley.

But a crop forecast released last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that the almond market is doing remarkably well given the dry circumstances. From 2014 to 2015, the area planted with bearing almond trees increased from 860,000 acres to 890,000. That’s more mature almond trees than ever before in California, the epicenter of the world’s almond industry.

Most California almonds are grown in the San Joaquin Valley, though Butte County is a major producer. The county’s farmers harvested 37,512 acres of almond trees in 2013, with the crop’s value just under $200 million—about 40 percent of the county’s total agricultural worth. The county’s most valuable crop is walnuts, with more than 43,000 bearing acres generating $285 million in 2013.

While some farmers have suffered from water shortages and have had to let thousands of their trees die, these examples, though widely publicized at times, are an exception to the norm. The industry is busy planting millions of new almond trees every year. Much of the expansion is occurring in the western San Joaquin Valley, where farmers with junior water rights regularly engage in legislative battles to weaken environmental laws that restrict how much Delta water they can receive.

Environmentalists have challenged the almond industry’s growth, since most almonds are exported. Economic growth in China, the industry’s largest export market, is driving the expansion.

But Colleen Cecil, executive director of the Butte County Farm Bureau, says other countries depend on California’s arid and hot Central Valley to produce nuts, which cannot be grown in most regions.

“You can’t plant an almond tree just anywhere,” Cecil said.

Environmentalists have accused almonds of being one of the state’s biggest water hogs. Each year, the state’s almond orchards guzzle as much water as Los Angeles uses in about five years. However, almond farmers have dramatically increased their water-use efficiency, according to industry representatives, who say it now takes on average a third less water than 15 years ago to grow each nut.

Still, critics say this hasn’t helped the environment much, since all the water savings logged by the industry have been invested directly back into new orchards.

The environment, by comparison, is gasping for a drink. There literally was not enough water left in Lake Shasta in the fall of 2013 for chinook salmon to spawn successfully in the Sacramento River just downstream of the reservoir, and in 2014, the water exiting the lake, depleted by drought, was so warm it destroyed millions of fertilized eggs. The Delta smelt, often ridiculed by farmers because valuable water has been released to keep the fish’s habitat healthy, is at the brink of extinction.

Meanwhile, California’s almond farms have never been so productive. Though water prices are up for many, and though this year’s almond harvest is expected to be diminished slightly by drought, farmers have reaped record crops repeatedly in the past decade of explosive growth. In 2014, the almond industry’s crop of 1.8 billion pounds was worth $6.5 billion—the most lucrative fruit crop in the state.