California Has More Than One Almond Problem

Almond orchards are thirsty, and the crops that soak up water are largely exported
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 17, 2021 2:26 PM CDT
Almonds Are a Thirsty Crop. That's a Problem in California
In this aerial photo is an abandoned almond orchard in Newman, Calif., on July 20, 2021.   (AP Photo/Terry Chea)

A historic drought across the US West is taking a heavy toll on California’s $6 billion almond industry, which produces roughly 80% of the world’s almonds. More growers are expected to abandon their orchards as water becomes scarce and expensive. It’s a sharp reversal for the almond’s relentless expansion in California’s agricultural Central Valley, where a dry Mediterranean-like climate and reliable irrigation system made it the perfect location to grow the increasingly popular nut. But almond orchards are thirsty permanent crops that need water year-round, and the US Drought Monitor reported that 88% of the state was in "extreme drought" as of last week, with the Central Valley facing the worst conditions. From the AP:

  • By the numbers. California almond production grew from 370 million pounds in 1995 to a record 3.1 billion pounds in 2020, according to the US Department of Agriculture. In May, the USDA projected that California's almond crop would hit a record 3.2 billion pounds this year, but in July, it scaled that back to 2.8 billion pounds due to water availability and heat.

  • The rub. Most of those almonds end up elsewhere. Almonds are California’s top agricultural export, and the industry ships about 70% of its almonds overseas, fueled by strong demand in India, East Asia, and Europe.
  • Critic I. Gov. Gavin Newsom has called on residents to voluntarily reduce water use by 15%, but "if we’re conserving in the cities so that they can grow more almonds, it’s simply not fair because it’s not benefiting the majority of Californians," said Tom Stokely, a board member for the California Water Impact Network. He wants to see a ban on permanent crops like almond orchards in areas lacking adequate water supplies.
  • Critic II. "All of this increase in almonds and this increase in water demand, it’s been done at a time when there’s virtually no increase in water supply," said David Goldhamer, a water management specialist at the University of California, Davis. "The water embodied in the production of those almonds is being exported out of this country."
  • One farmer: Joe Del Bosque has left a third of his farmland unplanted to save water for the nuts. And he may pull out 100 of his 600 acres of almond trees after the late summer harvest—years earlier than planned.
(More almonds stories.)

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