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Water problems threaten California almond growers’ boom time

As California growers deal with drought conditions again, the booming almond industry fears limitations for non-market based reasons.

Droughts are not new to California agriculture and are a reason almonds became an attractive option for growers as they are higher value and require less water than some other crops. They have exploded into a $6 billion industry with California growing 80 percent of the world’s supply of almonds.

Consumer demand has also fueled growth.

According to the Almond Board of California BB #:162559, shipments were on a pace to hit a new record for the 2020-21 season, despite port and trade issues and pandemic-related complications.

But a USDA report published July 12 estimates the 2021 crop will come in at 2.8 billion meat pounds, 10 percent below last year’s record of 3.1 billion pounds. A May forecast had the crop at 3.2 billion pounds.

Water restrictions and the continuing drought are forcing growers to limit plantings and harvest.

Mark Jansen, CEO of Blue Diamond Growers, told the Wall Street Journal, “We foresee an end of the unconstrained growth in almond supply.”

The Journal quoted several growers who are abandoning crops, grinding up trees and not planting acreage they planned.

Jenny Holtermann, owner, farmer, and creator of Almond Girl, LLC, said growers have had to deal with drought conditions on and off for many years, but there are things that could have been done to better deal with limited water.

“We have not invested in new water infrastructure in our state in over 40 years,” she said. “Since then, our population has doubled. There is a strain on our systems demanding more water and less availability. We also flush an absurd amount of water out into the ocean every day instead of storing it for dry times or sending it to areas in need.”

She said all input costs are rising for growers, and with this latest drought, it’s pushing some growers over the edge.

“With the ever increasing price of water and the passing of regulations, such as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, growers (almonds and other crops) have had to make difficult decisions,” Holtermann said.

“This year and last has been a perfect storm. The almond price is half of what the price was a few years ago, our water is limited, minimum wage continues to rise – it is too much to handle for some farmers. At some point, something has to give. Many farmers are selling out or not replanting orchards and leaving them fallowed.”

While the farming footprint has not changed too much, the crops we grow have. Farmers have switched from crops like cotton to almonds. Farmers had been switching to high return crops because our inputs continue to rise, the price of water being a huge cost.

The Journal story quoted one grower who said his solution has been to shift acreage from drier areas to ones with better water access.

However, Holtermann said that’s not realistic for most growers.

“More almonds are grown in Kern County, where we farm, than any other county,” she said. “The Central Valley is home to a majority of the almond acreage in our state and nation because our soil is the best suited and our climate is ideal.”

“Sure, we can grow them as far north as Chico, but the yield and production just isn’t the same. I think it is important to understand in Kern County our farmland acreage really hasn’t changed in 50 years. We farm the same amount of acreage as we have for generations. The amount of water we are using today is less than the amount of water we used generations before us,” Holtermann said.

She said almond farmers like her use 33 percent less water than they did 30 years ago, and the almond industry pledged in 2020 to conserve an additional 20 percent of water by 2025.

“Farmers have invested in water conservation tools, groundwater recharge systems, soil moisture monitoring systems, and irrigation efficiency technology systems to help them use less water and manage our decreasing water supply,” Holtermann said.

Harbinder Maan, associate director, trade marketing and stewardship for the Almond Board of California, also said, growers have pledged to produce their crops more sustainably.

“It’s important to note that California almond farmers, supported by our research and programs, have reduced water usage, and embraced zero waste, helped honeybees and developed the economy,” she said.

“Our 2025 goals show how the almond community continues to make strides towards a more sustainable future for everyone.”

Greg Johnson is Director of Media Development for Blue Book Services