Almond Tree Increase Brings Questions and Benefits

Taylor Hillman Environment, Specialty Crops, Tree, nut & vine crops, Water

More-efficient irrigation technologies -- like this drip system in an almond orchard in Yolo County -- save water, conserve energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

As California Almond Acreage Grows, Trees Bring Benefits to Agriculture, Environment and Community

From the Almond Board of California:

The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service reported that California’s almond acreage increased in 2015. Bearing acres, that is orchards old enough to produce a crop, were reported at 890,000 acres, up 1.1 percent from 2014. Total almond acres for 2015 were estimated at 1,110,000, up from 1,050,000 acres the previous year.

This growth follows a twenty year trend in which California almond acreage has doubled, matching increasing global demand for heart-healthy, nutrient-dense almonds. At the same time, there are concerns about competition for limited resources in California, raising questions such as: What has this tree inrease replaced? What are the implications on water use? And what are the implications for California overall?

According to a recent analysis of almond acreage by Sacramento-based agricultural and environmental consulting firm Land IQ, almond acreage growth over the last 10 to 15 years has replaced both perennial and annual crops. This includes cotton, vineyards, non-irrigated grasslands, alfalfa, grain and hay crops, tomatoes, corn, mixed field crops, irrigated pasture, and more. Of the almond acreage planted during this time, 96 percent of it lies within the Central Valley’s historic irrigated area, most often replacing other irrigated crops. Contrary to recent speculation, only 42,000 acres of growth over the last 10 to 15 years has occurred within previously non-irrigated grasslands.3

Some have suggested that the shift towards higher value, permanent crops has led to an increase in agricultural water use. However, according to the California Department of Water Resources, the total amount of water used by agriculture has held steady since 2000, and has actually declined over a longer period of time, largely due to more efficient irrigation management and infrastructure.

“Almonds take up about 14 percent of the state’s irrigated farmland but uses 9.5 percent of California’s agricultural water, less than a proportionate share, ” said Almond Board of California (ABC) President and CEO, Richard Waycott. “Because of the industry’s commitment to research and efficiency, growers use 33 percent less water to grow a pound of almonds than they did two decades ago .”

Beyond growing the almonds that we love to eat, California almond trees and the land they grow on provide important and multiple benefits to their surrounding communities and environment.

Groundwater Recharge Potential
Groundwater is a vital resource essential to maintaining California’s economic and environmental viability in years of both normal and low rainfall. However, over-reliance on this resource and continued drought has meant that many of California’s groundwater aquifers are under ever-increasing pressure and, in some areas, in decline.

One of the ways this trend can be reversed and groundwater replenished is through managed groundwater recharge, which is why ABC has partnered with University of California researchers, conservation nonprofit Sustainable Conservation, Land IQ and others to investigate leveraging California’s one-million acres of almond orchards for groundwater recharge. In fact, preliminary analysis of almond acreage indicates that nearly 675,000 acres are moderately good or better in their ability to recharge groundwater.

“This research and its application on California’s almond orchards may become an important component in sustainably managing California’s groundwater which will benefit not just farmers, but all Californians,” said Waycott.

Carbon Sequestration, A Method to Help Fight Climate Change
A recent study by University of California researchers published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology reached important conclusions about almond trees and their sequestration of greenhouse gases. According to study author, Dr. Alissa Kendall, “Almond orchards capture and store a significant amount of carbon both above and below the orchard’s surface over their 25-year life cycle.”

Building on this, ABC is currently investing in research on how to manage inputs, like fertilizer, as well as outputs, like the trees’ byproducts – hulls, shells and wood – in an impactful way. As the researchers indicate, it’s realistic that the California almond industry could be carbon neutral or even carbon negative, should continued production improvements and policy changes go hand in hand.

It’s important to note that while almond acreage has grown in recent decades, Central Valley cities have also expanded. With them, urban areas bring greenhouse gas emissions nearly 60 times greater than agricultural lands, according to a recent statewide study of California emissions.

“California land is a shared resource,” said Land IQ Owner and Principal Agricultural Scientist, Joel Kimmelshue. “When fertile farm land is converted to urban use it benefits residents, but has the unintended consequence of increased greenhouse gas emissions. Balancing urban growth with carbon sequestering agricultural systems such as almond production can reduce the effect of urban heat islands and support farm land production on urban boundaries.”

According to the California Department of Conservation, between 1984 and 2010, 1.1 million acres of California irrigated farmland and nearly 370,000 acres of non-irrigated farmland was lost to urbanization. An analysis of growth in just nine major Central Valley cities since 1990 indicates that in total, those urban areas have increased in size by 43 percent, which equates to a loss of nearly 223,000 acres of farmland — an area equal to 69 percent of recent almond acreage growth.3 “At the current rate, urban growth is far outpacing agricultural growth in California’s Central Valley and the balance between the benefits and costs of land use is changing,” said Kimmelshue.

Protecting and conserving farmland by preventing urban development on this valuable resource is an important and effective strategy for alleviating climate change – a clear benefit for all Californians.

Accelerating Innovation
To meet the future needs of the California almond industry, as well as the local communities and the environment, ABC’s Accelerated Innovation Management (AIM) program has increased focus on the development and deployment of innovative almond farming practices.

Together with ABC’s traditional research programs and bold new partnerships, AIM consists of four major initiatives designed to move the entire industry forward – Water Management and Efficiency, Sustainable Water Resources, Air Quality and 22nd Century Agronomics.

“The California almond community recognizes that with size and success comes responsibility,” said Waycott. “By owning this leadership role, ABC and California’s almond growers and processors are together laying the groundwork for the betterment of California agriculture and California as a whole.”

To learn more about these and additional sustainability initiatives, please visit