June 17, 2015 | Climate, Connections

Connections: California Almonds

Sally Brown

Sally Brown
BioCycle June 2015

Almonds are not the devil. Not eating almonds, even almonds grown in California (where over 80% of the world’s almonds are grown) will not solve the current water crisis in that state. It is true that almonds require a lot of water to grow. I’ve read recently that it takes about a gallon of water to generate an almond. A gallon of water will quench your thirst a lot longer than an almond will satisfy your hunger.
However, most of what we eat requires a lot of water to grow, therefore most of the water used in the U.S. goes to producing food. The water used for agriculture typically averages about 70 percent of total consumption with the remainder split between municipal use and industrial use. Rather than swearing off almonds, it makes more sense to look at the bigger picture. Consider, for example, the bread that you put the almond butter on and the glass of milk that you drink with your almond butter sandwich.
California grows 840,000 acres of almonds that generate $5.8 billion. Yield per acre is 2,390 lbs and an average price is $3.21/lb. That comes to about $7,670/acre. California also produces a lot of milk with milk production generating more revenue than almonds ($7.6 billion). Some of what those cows eat is also grown in the state. Corn for grain was planted on 600,000 acres in 2013 but water limitations likely reduced the acres actually harvested to 180,000. Average yield was 5.35 tons/acre. At $190.36/ton, that brings the value to about $1,018/acre. The amount of water required to grow corn varies based on the climate and the variety of corn but a range is 2,500 to 4,000 gallons/bushel (56 lbs). Assuming 3,000 gallons/bushel, that is equivalent to 54 gallons/lb. Wheat was planted on 690,000 acres and harvested from 394,000 — again, likely limited by lack of water. Yields were 2.48 tons/acre and the value per ton was $265.19 — or about $660/acre. The amount of water needed to grow wheat will depend on how densely the wheat is planted. If you seed wheat at low rates, expecting low yields, a crop can be generated with 10 to 14 inches of rain a year. To get a yield of 100 bushels per acre, about 1.75 acre feet of water is required. At 326,000 gallons/acre foot and 60 lbs/bushel of wheat, that means 95 gallons of water per pound of wheat.

Corn and wheat use less water per pound than almonds (276 almonds per lb = about 276 gallons of water). But you can grow corn and wheat just about anywhere in the U.S., including areas where there is sufficient rainfall and irrigation requirements are minimal. And you can only grow almonds in California. Almonds like a Mediterranean climate. They like cool and wet winters and hot and dry summers. They do not tolerate frosts. Almonds use triple the water of wheat and corn but they also bring in seven times the revenue. Because they are such a high value crop and because they are a perennial crop, it is also easy to use high precision irrigation techniques to supply the water. Irrigation efficiencies have improved over time. Subsurface drip irrigation, for example, is a way to maximize water use efficiency and minimize waste. It is currently used on a small portion of the almond acres.
There are also other ways to make growing almonds in California even more efficient. Use of compost as both soil conditioners and as mulches will improve soil moisture holding and reduce evapotranspiration. Literature has shown increased water efficiencies of 20 to 40 percent in orchard crops with compost use.

Almond Logic

In other words, growing almonds in California makes a lot more sense than growing corn or wheat there. Almonds are a high value crop, uniquely suited to the growing environment in the Central Valley. They are not something that can be easily produced anywhere else in the U.S. When confronting the water crisis in California, it makes sense to increase water use efficiency through more sophisticated irrigation systems and soil management practices such as compost use. It makes sense to take advantage of the unique growing environment that has allowed California to dominate the U.S. and international market for certain high value specialty crops. It does not make sense to waste acres and water on crops that are easily grown elsewhere. Reducing the acreage devoted to agronomic crops such as wheat and corn is a much more logical response to the current water crisis than boycotting almonds.
On a global basis, the drought in California suggests that planting almond trees outside the Central Valley can be a source of revenue and resilience. Almonds originated in Persia and grow well in many parts of the Mediterranean and Australia. Increasing acreage in these regions means more competition for California but additional sources of almonds in case the drought worsens. It would also provide protection from threats like disease and insects that can easily damage monocultures.
Our agricultural system has developed to maximize production and efficiency. That model is no longer appropriate when resources, including water, are increasingly limited. We are at a point where putting all of our almonds (or eggs) in one valley (or basket) is a foolish approach. So let the almonds stay in California. Get rid of at least a portion of the wheat and the corn. And to those overseas growers in areas with cool frost-free winters and warm summers, think about offering California some competition.
Sally Brown is a Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and a member of BioCycle’s Editorial Board.

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