Almond products—snack mixes, butters, milk—are flying off supermarket shelves. The value of the California almond market hit $4.8 billion in 2012—that's triple the level of a decade earlier. Only dairy is worth more to the state than almonds and grapes. In fact, almonds, along with California-grown pistachios and walnuts, are becoming so lucrative that big investment funds, eager to get in on the boom, are snapping up land and dropping in trees.I just can't imagine that farmers can continue to plant acres to almond orchards. They just can't continue to pump water from the aquifers to water all those trees. Yes, the money is incredible, but wide-scale almond production in the Central Valley just isn't sustainable.
There's just one problem: Almond orchards require about a third more water per acre than grape vineyards. In fact, they're one of California's thirstiest crops. It takes a gallon of water to produce a single almond—more than three times the amount required for a grape and two and a half times as much for a strawberry. There's more water embedded in just four almonds than there is in a full head of lettuce. But unlike row crops, which farmers can choose not to plant during dry spells, almond trees must be watered no matter what.
In the midst of the worst drought in California's history, you might expect almonds' extreme thirst to be a deal breaker. But it's not. In fact, the drought has had hardly any impact at all on the almond boom. The state's farmers bought at least 8.33 million young almond trees between July 2013 and July 2014, a 25 percent increase from the previous year. About a quarter of the saplings went to replace old orchards, but most of the rest were new plantings, some 48,000 acres' worth, an area equal to three Manhattans.
In order to thrive, almond trees need a Mediterranean climate, hot summers and mild winters. Those come free in the Central Valley. But steady access to water is just as crucial to an almond grove's success. So where is the water for all these new orchards coming from? No longer California's famed irrigation projects, which draw on the state's rivers and have slowed to a trickle during the drought. Instead, farmers are tapping into groundwater.
Monday, January 12, 2015
California, the Drought, and Almonds
Tom Philpott at Mother Jones: