Addressing Ongoing Myths About Almonds and the California Drought

Posted September 3rd, 2015

The Almond Board received questions about the accuracy of information reported in a recent  Vice News segment called “Race to the Bottom.” We reached out to the editors of that segment to ensure they have factual information about almonds and water. Here are the facts that we shared:

This historic drought has brought some heightened and at times mistaken reporting on agricultural water use. Chief among the errors is the statement that agriculture in California uses 80 percent of the state’s water.

  • It’s important to clarify that agriculture uses 41 percent of California’s applied water, not 80 percent.1 Half of the state’s applied water goes to ensure the aquatic environment – rivers, wetlands and the like -- has enough water.  The remainder goes to urban uses.  Almonds specifically use about nine percent of the state’s agricultural water, not total water. Almonds grow on about 13 percent of the state’s irrigated farmland, so they use less water than their acreage would indicate.2

Another inaccuracy sometimes conveyed is that almond trees are particularly water-intensive.

  • In fact, almond trees use about the same amount of water as other fruit and nut trees in California, and they use less than some other crops.3  And, almonds actually generate three things – the kernels we eat, the hulls that are used as livestock feed, and the shells that are used as to produce electricity and as livestock bedding.

Media sometimes portray California farmers’ production practices as antiquated.

  • In fact, California almond growers have shown their adaptability for decades by investing in scientific research and new technologies to drive sustainability, water efficiency, productivity and environmental responsibility. For example, almond farmers have been lead adapters of water-efficient irrigation systems like driplines, mini-sprinklers and demand watering technology, and 70 percent of almond growers now use micro irrigation.4 In addition, The Almond Board of California invests millions of dollars on independent research into new ways to cut water use.  These efforts helped growers cut the amount of water needed to grow a pound of almonds by 33 percent in since 1994.5

We’ve heard some say that California as mostly a “desert” that can’t sustainability grow food.

  • California’s Central Valley is actually not a desert at all. Instead, it’s a Mediterranean climate, which is what helps it be America’s most productive growing region. California farmers provide half of the nation’s fruits, vegetables and nuts, along with many dairy products and more than 400 other crops that feed consumers from coast to coast and around the world. The Central Valley has a Mediterranean climate ideal for almonds, which can grow productively in only five Mediterranean-like regions on earth. That’s why California produces more than 80 percent of the world’s almonds and nearly all the almonds consumed in the U.S. And almond farmers are growing them responsibly. A recent UC Davis almond orchard life cycle study in the Journal of Industrial Ecology shows that the almond industry is making progress toward becoming carbon neutral or even carbon negative with respect to greenhouse gases.6

And some have portrayed almond growers’ water use as irresponsible.

  • Actually, almond farmers have invested in efficient irrigation technologies, and they haven’t stopped there. Creative solutions have been implemented for longer than you may think. For example, agriculture is the single largest user of recycled water and has been using it as a supply for more than 100 years.7

Others have portrayed almond farms as run by outside investment companies.

  • In reality, nearly 90 percent of almond farms are family farms, many operated by third or fourth generation farmers who live on their land and plan to pass it down to their children.8 Yes, farmers are business people, who make the same decisions based on the same factors as any business: supply and demand. But they understand that if they don't manage their land and resources responsibility, they risk their family's way of life. As Jimmy Gardiner said in the Vice segment, "Being third generation, you are not just farming for yourself. One day you know, hopefully, either my brother's kids or if someone wants to continue to be involved, it will be here because we are planning for that."

Like all Californians, almond growers would welcome rainy weather to help relieve the drought.  They always hope for the best, plan for the worst, and continually look for new and better ways to grow the most crop per drop from the water they have available. That is the nature of farming in California.

In good and bad conditions, water is always precious to almond growers because it means life to their trees, to their families, to the 100,000 people who work in the industry, and to their state’s economy, which reaps $11 billion a year from almonds.9 So, over the last several decades, California almond growers have focused on increasing water efficiency, and they continue to do more. Every year, the Almond Board of California invests millions of dollars new, independent university studies to guide major improvements in planting methods, water-efficient irrigation, responsible pesticide use, honeybee health and other aspects of next-generation farming. 

We appreciate media’s interest in the drought. It’s important that factual information and nuanced context are provided to the people who depend on them for news.


This blog entry has been edited on October 2nd for tone from its original, though the content is consistent.

1 Public Policy Institute of California. Water for Farms. Apr. 2015.
2 USDA. 2012 Census of Agriculture. May 2014. California Department of Water Resources. California Water Plan Update 2013: Volume 1. Oct. 2014. USDA-NASS. 2014 Almond Acreage Report. Apr. 2015.
3 California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Irrigation Training and Research Center. ITRC Report No. 03-001: California Crop and Soil Evapotrasporation. ETc Tables 1-13.
4 California Almond Sustainability Program. Jan. 2014.
5 University of California. UC Drought Management. Feb. 2010. Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN. FAO Irrigation and Drainage Paper 66 – Crop yield in response to water. 2012. Almond Board of California. Almond Almanac 1990-94, 2000-14.
6 Kendall, A., Marvinney, E., Brodt, S. and Zhu, W. (2015), Life Cycle–based Assessment of Energy Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Almond Production, Part I: Analytical Framework and Baseline Results. Journal of Industrial Ecology. doi: 10.1111/jiec.12332
7 Pacific Institute. Impacts of California’s Ongoing Drought: Agriculture. August 2015.
9 University of California Agricultural Issues Center. The Economic Impacts of the California Almond Industry. December 2014.