Almond orchards have become ground zero in the debate over California’s epic drought, the focal point of criticism that agriculture uses too much water.
The response? More almond trees.
California’s almond farmers are likely to continue planting new orchards in the coming years, increasing production by 2 percent to 3.5 percent a year over the next decade, one of the state’s leading farm economists said Thursday.
“Higher prices and good profits for California almond growers will continue to encourage more planting of almond orchards,” economist Vernon Crowder, senior vice president at Rabobank, said in a report released by the bank. “Nurseries report very little slowing in orders of new trees.”
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Representatives of the state’s almond farmers defended the decision to expand California’s orchards, saying growers with adequate water supplies are making rational economic decisions based on the price they can get for their crop.
“That’s the American economic system,” said Richard Waycott, chief executive of the Almond Board of California, in a conference call Thursday with reporters.
“It’s basically 6,500 farmers making these decisions,” he added. “Nobody’s telling them to do that.”
Agriculture in general is under fire as the drought worsens. Critics say farmers use 80 percent of the water dedicated to human use in California but generate only about 2 percent of the state’s economic output. Gov. Jerry Brown has defended his decision to exempt agriculture from his recent executive order mandating a 25 percent cut in consumption by urban water agencies statewide, saying farmers already have had their surface supplies curtailed considerably.
On Thursday, Brown argued against any effort to curtail production of water-intensive crops. “That’s a ‘Big Brother’ move, and we’re not in that position,” Brown told reporters after a drought-related meeting at the Capitol.
“Agriculture is an important pillar of California,” Brown said, “and I think we have to be very slow to be starting to pick” among crops, with policies favoring one over another.
Farmers also say that the 80 percent figure is misleading. When environmental uses are taken into account, agriculture’s share of California’s water supply falls to around 40 percent.
The state’s agricultural industry, and almonds in particular, have nonetheless taken a public relations beating in recent weeks. As the nut’s popularity has boomed, the amount of California farmland devoted to almonds has nearly doubled over the past 20 years, to more than 900,000 acres. The state’s almond crop is worth more than $4 billion a year as prices have risen to nearly $4 a pound, record territory.
That’s proved controversial in an epic drought because almond trees are permanent crops. They can’t be fallowed in dry years, unlike rice, tomatoes and other annual crops. Much of the increased planting in recent years has occurred on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, where water supplies have become among the most fragile in California.
Growers who have planted orchards in the San Joaquin area “are finding out that you can get burned,” Crowder said.
What’s more, almonds get criticized for using lots of water. An oft-quoted statistic says it takes a gallon of water to produce a single almond. Many in California agriculture say that’s too simplistic a statistic.
But there is little dispute that almonds are among the thirstiest crops in California. Almond trees require about 4 acre-feet of water a year for every acre planted, according to data gathered by David Goldhamer, a water management specialist emeritus with the UC Cooperative Extension. Tomatoes and grapes take about half as much water, as does cotton – a crop that has seen its acreage diminish as almond orchards have spread. Among major crops, only alfalfa takes more water per acre than almonds.
Almond farming has hardly been immune to the effects of the drought. Yields fell, and the crop shrank by 12 percent last year despite the growth in acreage, Crowder said.
Nor have farmers been oblivious to the state’s water woes, Waycott said. The growers are converting to highly efficient irrigation systems, and some of them have had to rip out their trees when they’ve been unable to get water.
“We do have areas where people have thrown in the towel and orchards have been abandoned,” Waycott said. “That is a trend. It’s not a huge trend yet.”
The almond boom in California is in many respects an international phenomenon. Almonds have become enormously popular as snack foods and cooking ingredients in Western Europe, China, India and other growth markets. California produces about 80 percent of the world’s supply, and exports have grown 40 percent in three years.
Crowder said he expects prices to moderate before too long, but almonds will continue to be a very profitable crop for most farmers. That suggests most farmers will find a way to stay in the almond business.
“These guys are in the business of making money on farming,” Crowder said. “They know what they need to do to make a living, and it’s selling almonds to the world.”
Call The Bee’s Dale Kasler, (916) 321-1066. Follow him on Twitter @dakasler. Bee Capitol Bureau reporter David Siders contributed to this report.