Almond growers’ relentless drive to reduce water use predating the current severe drought is paying big dividends.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service is projecting a record 2.05 billion pounds of almonds will be harvested this year in California. It that pans out, the harvest will surpass the current high benchmark of 2.03 billion pounds in 2011.
Growers statewide have reduced the water needed to grow a pound of almonds by a third since 1994. Almond growers west of Ripon and south of Manteca in South San Joaquin Irrigation District’s Division 9 with its nationally acclaimed pressurized water delivery system has slashed water use in almond orchards by at least an additional 25 percent over statewide levels. At the same time it has reduced air pollution and the drawing down of ground water as growers no longer need to pump water to irrigate eliminating the need to run diesel generators. The shift from augmenting surface irrigation water with ground water is helping reverse a dangerous trend of underground saltwater intrusion.
Almond are the top crop in San Joaquin County with 68,100 tons harvested in 2014 with a value of $578.5 million out of the county’s overall ag production of $3.3 billion. The three Northern San Joaquin Valley counties of San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced account for a third of all almond volume in California. The state grows 80 percent of the world’s almond crop.
Unlike a number of other crops. 91 percent of California’s 6,500 almond orchards are on multi-generational family farms with 61 percent being less than 50 acres in size.
Almonds are the state’s top ag export and add $1.1 billion to California’s gross state project. There are 104,000 jobs in the almond industry including 97,000 in the Central Valley.
Almond growers — sensitive to criticism leveled at them for some environmental and urban interests for growing food using essentially a permanent crop operation or orchard during a severe drought — have gleaned research from various state agencies and higher education research venues to make several points.
uWater needed to grow a pound of almonds since 1994 has dropped by 33 percent.
uMost fruit and nut trees use about the same amount of water as almond trees.
uThe Department of Water Resources notes overall farm water use has been steady since 2000 while yields have increased well into the double digits. Water use for farms over a longer horizon has decreased.
uMore than 50 percent of the nation’s fruits and nuts are grown in California.
uCalifornia’s Mediterranean climate — key to the wealth of fruit and nut production — means the state experiences wet and dry years on a routine basis making it no stranger to drought. The key, as the Modesto-based Almond Board of California points out, is how those extremes are managed.
uThere are only five regions in the world where the Mediterranean climate is conducive to growing almonds.
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