Calif. drought takes toll on almond growers

Terence Chea
Associated Press

Firebaugh, Calif. — As temperatures recently reached triple digits, farmer Joe Del Bosque inspected the almonds in his parched orchard in California’s agriculture-rich San Joaquin Valley, where a deepening drought threatens one of the state’s most profitable crops.

Employees inspect almonds in the processing facility at Steward & Jasper Orchards in Newman, Calif. on July 20, 2021. California's deepening drought threatens its $6 billion almond industry, which produces about 80 percent of the world's almonds. As water becomes scarce and expensive, some growers have stopped irrigating their orchards and plan to tear them out years earlier than planned.

Del Bosque doesn’t have enough water to properly irrigate his almond orchards, so he’s practicing “deficit irrigation” — providing less water than the trees need. He left a third of his farmland unplanted to save water for the nuts. And he may pull out 100 of his 600 acres (243 hectares) of almond trees after the late summer harvest — years earlier than planned.

“We may have to sacrifice one of them at the end of the year if we feel that we don’t have enough water next year,” said Del Bosque, who also grows melons, cherries and asparagus. “That means that our huge investment that we put in these trees is gone.”

A historic drought across the U.S. West is taking a heavy toll on California’s $6 billion almond industry, which produces roughly 80% of the world’s almonds. More growers are expected to abandon their orchards as water becomes scarce and expensive.

It’s a sharp reversal for the almond’s relentless expansion in California’s agricultural Central Valley, where dry Mediterranean-like climate and reliable irrigation system made it the perfect location to grow the increasingly popular nut.

In this aerial photo is an abandoned almond orchard in Newman, Calif., on July 20, 2021. California's deepening drought threatens its $6 billion almond industry, which produces about 80 percent of the world's almonds. As water becomes scarce and expensive, some growers have stopped irrigating their orchards and plan to tear them out years earlier than planned.

Almond orchards are thirsty permanent crops that need water year-round, clashing with a worsening drought and intensifying heat waves tied to climate change. Scientists say climate change has made the American West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will keep making weather more extreme.

California almond production grew from 370 million pounds in 1995 to a record 3.1 billion pounds in 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. During that period, land planted with almond trees grew from 756 square miles to 2,500 square miles.

In May, the USDA projected that California’s almond crop would hit a record 3.2 billion pounds this year, but in July, it scaled back that estimate to 2.8 billion pounds, citing low water availability and record heat.

Almonds, still in their green hulls, hang on a tree at an orchard owned by farmer Joe Del Bosque in Firebaugh, Calif., on July 9, 2021. California's deepening drought threatens its $6 billion almond industry, which produces about 80 percent of the world's almonds. As water becomes scarce and expensive, some growers have stopped irrigating their orchards and plan to tear them out years earlier than planned.

“A lot of growers are having to go through a stressful time to make the water they have last to keep their trees alive,” said Richard Waycott, president and CEO of the Almond Board of California, which represents more than 7,600 growers and processors.

California’s almond industry ships about 70% of its almonds overseas, fueled by strong demand in India, East Asia and Europe, according to the board.