Almonds — like everything else we eat — require water to grow.
During the last drought almonds became the target of ire from those who believe agriculture wantonly wastes water with almonds being the No. 1 culprit given almond orchards account for 8 percent of California’s irrigated water.
Almonds constitute the largest acreage in the state and as such they are a highly visible target compared to a number of other crops planted in lesser numbers of acres that are ranked lower in food value per gallon of water used.
California is the leading world producer— and exporter — of almonds. Almonds ranked as the No.2 crop in dollar value behind dairy ($7.47 billion) in 2020 coming in at $5.62 billion out of a statewide farm production valued at $49.1 billion. Grapes were third at $4.48 billion.
Almonds are the state’s leading farm export in 2020. The 2 billion tons of almonds exported made their way to more than 100 countries with India leading the way at 362 million pounds. India is the first country outside of the United States to consume more than 300 million pounds of almonds a year.
Almonds are highly valued in other lands — and in the United States — for being a healthy and nutrient dense food source. That includes high levels of protein and vitamins as well as antioxidants.
Two studies conducted during the last California drought that ended in 2018 tried to put water use of various crops in context.
Research by the Journal of Ecological Indicators in 2017 was the subject of a published report by the Food Revolution Network on 43 crops grown in California. Almonds came in 43rd out of the 43 crops examined in terms of consuming the most water to grow.
That use of water was offset by studies that showed the nutritional value of the food created — in this case almonds — was the third highest among the 43 crops.
Heavy water users that ranked near almonds such as pistachios, walnuts, and cashews were also among the crops with the highest nutrient value.
Those crops that were also high in nutrients like the almond but lower in water use were spinach, raspberries, broccoli, artichokes, and kiwi fruit.
Another study by Earth Sciences notes the water it took to grow typical crops. The list started with 13.8 gallons to grow an orange. It then dropped down to 5.9 gallons for a head of broccoli, 4.9 gallons for a walnut, 3.3 gallons for a tomato, 1.1 gallon for an almond, 0.75 gallons for a pistachio, and 0.4 gallons for a strawberry.
Research by the University of California verified water use to grow an almond is a third less today than it was in the 1990s. Water use for all irrigated crops have dropped during the time frame but none as substantial as that needed to grow nuts including almonds.
The Almond Board of California — an umbrella group for almond growers — is committed to reducing the amount of water used to grow a pound of almonds by 20 percent by the end of 2025.
So far California — one of only five places on earth with a Mediterranean climate suited to grow almonds as well as being the top producer by far — has 82 percent of its almond orchards employing efficient micro-irrigation methods. That’s the reason behind the 33 percent reduction in water use.
The Almond Board has funded 239 water research projects so far.
The projects focus on how much, when and where water should be used on almond trees.
New remote sensing technology can quantify how much water almond need in real time.
They function as Fitbits for trees. As such they are able to tell growers precisely when they need to irrigate to optimize tree yields, maximize tree health and minimize water use. As such it also reduces costs given water — whether it is obtained from an irrigation district or pumped form the ground using expensive PG&E electricity — has a major negative impact on a farm’s bottom line.
On the flip side, there are now concerns that the shift from flood irrigation and even sprinkler irrigation to precise drip irrigation may have a significant impact on the ability to recharge aquifers that other farms, rural residents, and even cities depend on.
It is why there are studies being done to see whether deliberately flooding orchards with excess storm runoff during the rainy season can effectively replenish groundwater without hurting the health of trees or negatively impacting yields.
Where the water is placed in proximity to roots is also part of the equation of reducing water use.
The drive to reduce water consumption for every almond grown is part of an overall sustainability effort that in the long haul also helps reduce grower costs.
Other efforts include orchard recycling where entire trees at the end of their productive lives are grounded up and incorporated into the soil, sugar and antioxidant extraction from almond shells for use in nutraceutical bars and dietary supplements, and shells being added to post-consumer recycled plastics for strength, heat stability and color.
Research also focuses on food values of almonds.
An eight-week study of 73 college students at the University of California at Merced demonstrates that incorporating almond snacks into the daily diets of those that tend to skip breakfasts resulted in a smaller decline in good cholesterol levels and resulted in lower insulin resistance. The consumption of almonds was compared with eating crackers.
Of the 16 primary California counties that grow almonds San Joaquin County ranks sixth behind Fresno in the No. 1 spot followed by Kern, Stanislaus, Madera, and Merced.
Stanislaus had 217,646 acres planted in almonds in 2020 that produced a crop valued at $3.476 billion. San Joaquin had 104,400 acres planted to produce $649 million with of almonds.
There are 7,600 almond farms in California with 90 percent of them family owned. Many are owned by third and fourth generation farmers.
Almost 70 percent of California’s almond farms consist of 100 acres or less.
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