Bearing acres of almonds in California rose 1.1 percent in 2015 to 890,000, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Total almond acreage in the state, which includes bearing and non-bearing orchards, rose to 1.1 million, up 50,000 acres from the previous year. Leading varieties include Nonpareil at over 310,000 acres, followed by Monterey, Butte, Carmel and Padre.
The relatively new Independence variety of almond, which has gained popularity with some growers, came on the market in 2008 and has since expanded to over 13,000 acres in the state.
Kern County is the largest almond-producing county in the state with over 147,000 acres planted. It is followed by Fresno County with over 126,000 acres and Stanislaus with over 116,000 planted acres.
This growth follows a 20 year trend in which California almond acreage has doubled, matching increasing global demand for almonds. California almond producers harvested their largest crop in 2011 at about 2.03 billion pounds, the first time on record that the industry produced over two billion pounds.
In 2013 growers again harvested over two billion pounds of almonds, which when combined with record prices; put the industry’s gross value at well over $6 billion.
At the same time almond acreage numbers continue to increase there appears to be public concern related to the competition of resources – namely the use of water to grow almonds.
The Almond Board of California (ABC) has spent considerable time, effort and funding to seek answers to these and other questions.
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.
About 42,000 acres of growth over the last 10 to 15 years has occurred within previously non-irrigated grasslands.
While some have suggested that the shift towards higher value, permanent crops has led to an increase in agricultural water use, the California Department of Water Resources says the total amount of water used by agriculture has held steady since 2000 and has actually declined over a longer period of time. This is 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,” said ABC President and Chief Executive Officer 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.”
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 the University of California, conservation nonprofit Sustainable Conservation, Land IQ and others to leverage California’s almond orchards for groundwater recharge.
So far nearly 675,000 acres have been identified for their ability to promote groundwater recharge.
“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.