Joe Del Bosque, a farmer in California’s agricultural-rich San Joaquin Valley was inspecting the almonds as temperatures reached triple digits. A deepening drought is threatening one of California’s most lucrative crops.
Del Bosque doesn’t have enough water for his almond orchards to be properly irrigated, so he’s using “deficit irrigation”, which is providing less water than the trees require. To save water for the nuts, he left a third his farmland unplanted. He may also pull 100 of his 600 acres (243 ha) of almond trees out of his farmland after the late-summer harvest, which would be years earlier than planned.
Del Bosque also grows melons and cherries, so it is possible to have one tree cut down at the end. “This means that the huge investment we made in these trees is now gone.”
California’s $6B almond industry is suffering from a drought that has ravaged the West. The state produces approximately 80% of the world’s almonds. As water becomes scarcer and more expensive, growers will likely abandon their almond orchards.
This is a dramatic reversal in California’s almond’s unstoppable expansion in California’s Central Valley. California’s dry Mediterranean climate and reliable irrigation system made it the ideal location for growing the increasingly popular nut.
Almond orchards, which are permanent and thirsty crops, require water all year. This is in contrast to a worsening drought as well as intensifying heat waves caused by climate change. Scientists believe climate change has made America’s West warmer and dryer over the past 30 year and will continue to make weather extremes.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, California almond production increased from 370 million pounds (roughly 168 million kgs) in 1995 to an unprecedented 3.1 billion pounds (1.4 million kilograms in 2020). The area of land that was planted with almond trees increased from 756 miles (1,958 km2) to 2,500 miles (6,475 kilometers) during this period.
The USDA had projected that California’s almond crop would reach a record 3.2 Billion pounds (1.5 Billion kilograms) in May. However, it lowered that estimate to 2.8 Billion pounds (1.3Billion kilograms) in July due to low water availability and record heat.
Richard Waycott, President and CEO of Almond Board of California (which represents over 7,600 growers/processors), stated that many growers are going through stressful times to ensure their trees live.
California’s most important agricultural export is almonds. According to the board, 70% of almonds are exported from California, thanks to strong demand from India, East Asia, and Europe.
California’s previous drought, which was declared in 2012 and 2016, saw almond prices rise. Investors and farmers planted hundreds of miles of new orchards to replace the areas without reliable water sources.
David Goldhamer, a water management specialist from the University of California Davis, said that all of the almond production and water demand has occurred at a time when water supplies are scarce. “The almonds are being produced with water from abroad.”
California’s second major drought has been declared since the almond boom. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 88% of California was in an “extreme drought” state as of last week. The worst conditions were being faced by the Central Valley.
The drought has drained reservoirs that supply water to Central Valley farms. According to the California Department of Water Resources, Shasta Lake was only 30% full in early August. Lake Oroville was 24%.
State and federal officials have reduced water for agriculture, forcing many farmers to leave fields fallow or switch to higher-value crops that use less water.
A dozen women with masks and hairnets inspected almonds inside the Stewart & Jasper Orchards processing plant. The nuts were being transported over conveyor belts to be packed into boxes for shipment to customers all around the globe.
California-based Newman processes approximately 60 million pounds (27,000,000 kilograms) of almonds each year from more than 31 sq miles (80 km) of almond orchards. It also has 3 sq miles (8 km) of its own.
Jim Jasper, the owner of the company, said that the profitability of growing almonds has declined over the years. His father founded the company in 1948. “The world will see fewer almonds.”
Jasper estimates that around a third California’s orchards were planted in areas without reliable water sources, meaning many of them will not survive the drought. His neighbors stopped watering their orchards and are letting the trees go.
“As you can see there is one orchard that’s dry because they didn’t have enough money to buy water. Jasper stated that this is happening all across the valley.
Governor. Gavin Newsom calls on residents to voluntarily reduce water use by 15%, critics say the thirsty crop isn’t sustainable at current levels in California.
Tom Stokely, a board member of the California Water Impact Network (a non-profit group that advocates sustainable water use), stated that “if we’re conserving cities so they can grow more almonds it’s simply unfair because it’sn’t benefitting the majority of Californians.”
Stokely believes that the state should prohibit permanent crops such as almond orchards, especially in areas without adequate water supply.
Stokely stated that “with the climate change and the droughts we’re experiencing, something’s going change very quickly or else we’re literally going to see our state collapse.” We must do something about it.