Eight Facts about Almonds, Agriculture and the Drought

Taylor HillmanTree, nut & vine crops

California is entering year four of a historic drought that is impacting residents and businesses throughout the state. Last week, Governor Brown announced unprecedented conservation measures that have, rightfully, received significant attention. However, as the conversation has progressed, there have been some claims about almonds and agriculture more generally that lack context or – in some cases – are simply wrong. Here’s a look at some facts that seem to have gotten lost in the shuffle:

1) All food takes water to grow. Despite all the focus on almonds recently, almonds make up less than 12 percent of the state’s total irrigated farmland and use only eight percent of the state’s agricultural (not total) water. That means that about 90 percent of the state’s farmland is planted with one of the many other crops grown here. Tuesday’s LA Times provides helpful context on how much water other California crops take to grow. Even if we accept the frequent claim that one almond takes one gallon of water to grow (more on that in a minute), that’s about 23 gallons per ounce. Look at how that compares to other sources of protein, for example: According to the Times, an ounce of peas takes 45 gallons, an ounce of lentils takes 71 gallons, and an ounce of beef takes 106 gallons.

2) Agriculture uses 41 percent of California’s total water supply – not 80 percent as often quoted. The California Department of Food and Agriculture has a helpful new blog post based on a report from the Public Policy Institute of California. The post features an eye-opening chart, along with additional important context about California agriculture and water use.

3) Farmers are sharing in the painful sacrifice. The state government is providing farmers with a 20 percent water allocation this year and the federal government is providing zero allocation. In 2014 alone, the drought cost farmers $1.5 billion and caused the loss of more than 17,000 jobs related to agriculture. Almond growers up and down the state are making difficult decisions, including pulling out orchards, or are simply providing just enough water to keep their trees alive.

We recognize that almonds and agriculture will need to continue to be part of the solution, but the suggestion that agriculture has been let off the hook doesn’t stand up to scrutiny

4) Total agricultural water use is not increasing. Many have suggested in recent days and weeks that the shift in crops towards higher value crops like nuts and wine grapes have led to an increase in agricultural water use. But according to the Department of Water Resources, the total amount of agricultural water has held steady since 2000 and actually declined over a longer period. Meanwhile, the value per gallon has increased.

5) Agriculture is critical to California’s economy. Some have tried to belittle agriculture’s contribution to the state by saying it only represents 2 percent of the state’s GDP. First, as Bloomberg View notes, that figure leaves out the food and beverage manufacturing sectors, which are directly related to the state’s vibrant agricultural sector. Second, and perhaps more importantly, that figure neglects the importance of agriculture to the population of large region of the state. For example, a report from the University of California Agricultural Issues Center finds that of the 104,000 jobs almonds alone contribute to California, 97,000 of them are in the Central Valley. As the report’s author notes, “These jobs are vital in a region that has long had high unemployment.”

6) Almond growers have adopted efficiency measures. Several sources, including the New York Times Editorial Board and a report from the NRDC and Pacific Institute, have pointed to micro-irrigation and irrigation scheduling as places farmers can and should conserve water. We agree. 70 percent of almond growers use micro-irrigation systems and more than 80 percent use demand-based irrigation scheduling. We expect those numbers to continue to grow over time. Over the past two decades, we’ve reduced the amount of water it takes to grow a pound of almonds by 33 percent, thanks in part to these advancements.

7) Most almond growers are not “big ag” – they’re small, family farmers. As with any industry, business sizes vary, but according to the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, more than 90 percent of almond farms are family farms and about three-quarters are less than 100 acres.

8) So how much water does it take to grow almonds? According to data collected from growers, they apply an average of 35.58 inches or 2.97 acre-feet per acre. This is in line with the per-acre needs of many other California crops.With the average acre producing 2,390 pounds of kernel per acre, that would come out to about 400 gallons per pound. Depending on the size of the kernels, that comes out somewhere between ¾ of a gallon and a gallon per kernel, including its shell and hull. Note that the water used to grow almond trees produces two crops. First, there’s the kernel, which is the nut we eat. Second, there are the hulls, which are sold as livestock feed, reducing the amount of water needed to grow other feed crops. The hulls supplant hay or alfalfa, which then does not need to be grown. So even the 400 gallons per pound overstates how much water goes get used to grow kernels themselves. In fact, the hulls make up about 50% of the weight of the almond fruit in a conservative estimate, so to consider how much water is actually going into the kernel, you should divide by two.