Today, the National Agricultural Statistical Survey from the USDA reported an increase in almond acreage. From the outside looking in, increasing acreage may seem counterintuitive to the current drought challenges facing our state. There are, however, a couple of facts that are key to understanding this report and what it means for our state's most precious resource.
It is important to understand that the trees that were planted as part of this recent expansion in acreage were purchased over two years ago when the extent of this drought wasn't fully known. Because tree nurseries don't cultivate trees until they have orders, almond farmers must forecast their needs two years before they expect to put trees into the ground. Farmers who are finally receiving these orders are now left in the unenviable position of having to decide whether to plant these trees despite a significant lack of available water or lose their substantial investment.
While it may seem selfish to choose to plant instead of fallow their fields, there are several reasons why it makes sense to move forward even in the face of a severe drought.
First, while recent news reports make it seem like fallowing fields has no repercussions other than saving precious water, the reality is that there is a huge economic impact. Last year alone, the drought cost farmers more than $1.5 billion and caused the loss of 17,000 jobs.1 In fact, You might be surprised to know that the total amount of irrigated farmland in California has been decreasing in recent years.2
Whether it's an annual crop like tomatoes or a perennial crop like almonds, fallowing fields means laying off workers, reduced spending with service providers and lost income. While media reports have blamed almonds as a contributor to our current woes, the fact is that almonds make up a little more than 10 percent of the state’s irrigated farmland and use less than that percentage of California’s agricultural (not total) water. 3,4 Fallowing fields won't solve our problems - only more rain will do that - but it will create substantial new ones.
Second, these new orchards do not use as much water as a fully established orchard. For the first three years, these young orchards require significantly less water as they establish themselves. So, in essence, farmers who are expanding their orchards are betting on the future. Should this drought continue and they can't acquire water, they will ultimately lose their trees anyway. But, if we return to normal precipitation in the coming years, these trees will help the economy recover quicker by providing a crop that returns to California high economic value for the water it uses.
Finally, in some cases, newer trees are being used to replace older orchards and that presents a significant opportunity to create a more water efficient future. When an orchard is replaced a farmer can upgrade the irrigation system with the latest drip and micro sprinkler technology which conserve water by decreasing water runoff, applying water directly to the root zone to avoid waste, and for precise timing and rate of irrigation. Based on findings from the California Almond Sustainability program, more than 70 percent of almond orchards already use micro-irrigation systems.5 As a result, the almond industry has been able to reduce the amount of water it takes to grow a pound of almonds by 33 percent in the last 20 years. 6 Replanting can only help to improve those numbers.
We are committed to doing our part to help manage the current drought in a way that benefits all Californians. We need long-term, holistic solutions with input from all stakeholders. In the meantime, however, it makes no sense to let trees ordered two years ago die before they are put in the ground.
(Last updated June 9, 2015)
1. University of California, Davis, Economic Analysis of the 2014 Drought for California Agriculture
2. USDA, 2012 Census of Agriculture
3. USDA-NASS. 2014 Almond Acreage Report. Apr. 2015.
4. California Almond Sustainability Program; Department of Water Resources, California Water Plan Update 2013 Calculation: 35.58” average applied water per acre x 940,000 acres = 2.76MAF/34MAF average total ag applied water
5. California Almond Sustainability Program. 2014
6. Almond Board of California, calculations based on data from UC Drought Management, FAO, USDA
Chart source: http://californiawaterblog.com/2015/04/14/dollars-and-drops-per-crop-in-california/