What Drought? Farmers Keep Planting Almonds, and Calif.’s Economy Is Just Fine

Four years of dry weather hasn’t stopped new orchards from being planted—but don’t blame growers.

Trees on an almond farm in San Joaquin County. (Photo: Flickr)

Apr 19, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Last spring, I spent a day reporting from a corner of California that, a year later, some might try to convince you is in the seventh circle of water-hog’s hell. In 2013, Kern County was second only to Fresno in almond production. And as long as the once-humble nut remains the scapegoat of choice for the drought, towns such as Wasco, which is ringed with almond orchards, will seem like the home of the bad guys.

But here’s the thing: They’re only growing almonds because consumers, American and Chinese alike, asked them to. And until that changes, they’re going to keep growing them.

During the time I spent with Nate Siemens, who runs a small orchard called Fat Uncle Farms, it was clear that he was anything but unconcerned about the water used on his crop. Rather than expanding his almond acreage, he told me that he wanted to start growing heirloom grains—crops that have made a small but fascinating resurgence among a certain set of California farmers. In addition to being able to charge a premium for sustainably grown Sonora wheat, specialty grains present another upside: They can be dry farmed, subsisting on nothing more than even meager winter rains. Expanding into a whole new crop while using no additional water? In the fourth year of what could be a long, long drought, it sounds like magic.

For Siemens, however, it didn’t happen—at least not this past winter, when nearby Bakersfield received just 4.5 inches of rain. When I emailed him to see if there was a winter wheat crop ready to be harvested this spring, he said the uncertainty caused by the drought kept him from planting.

It’s an irony of the dry years in California: Betting on nature is riskier than sticking with the convoluted systems that have provided irrigation water to farmers for more than a century. And while Siemens is skipping wheat, other farmers are still moving into almonds. Ag economists say that more almond orchards are likely to be planted in the coming year.

“Higher prices and good profits for California almond growers will continue to encourage more planting of almond orchards,” Vernon Crowder, an economist at Rabobank, said in a Thursday press release. “Nurseries report very little slowing in orders of new trees.”

Unlike dry-farmed row crops such as heirloom wheat, lucrative permanent crops like almonds allow farmers a better sense of what kind of profit they can make off the water they have. And that’s even when there’s essentially no water at all. Both the federal Central Valley Project and the California State Water Project are delivering just a fraction of the irrigation water farmers in the region would receive in a normal year. The miniscule amount of water being sluiced out of reservoirs has led to plenty of drilling for groundwater—another wet resource that’s drying up—and haggling with senior rights holders for surface water that’s only accessible to those at the top of California’s weirdly hierarchical system.

The new almond orchards are a symptom of a larger reality in California: The drought’s not hurting the state economy, and it isn’t expected to in the near future. That, at least, is what a report published Tuesday by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office found.

“While the drought is affecting many Californians and communities in different ways, we currently do not expect the drought to have a significant effect on statewide economic activity or state government revenues,” the report reads.

“That being said,” it continues, “we acknowledge the drought as a risk factor for the state’s economy, especially if its effects worsen or are prolonged.”

Even if farmers are doing their best to meet market demand for almonds under difficult environmental circumstances, Gov. Jerry Brown appears to be planning for what might happen in that “prolonged” scenario. In addition to requiring reductions in urban water use, Brown has said that he might overhaul the state water rights system next, expanding his conservation measures into the sector that uses 80 percent of California’s water.

What he won’t do is say that farmers shouldn’t plant almonds—or any other crop, for that matter. “That’s a ‘Big Brother’ move, and we’re not in that position,” Brown said in a meeting with reporters this week. What grows in California, as farmers planting new orchards in the midst of the worst drought in 1,200 years have indelibly shown, is whatever you, the consumer, want grown here.

So let’s start hyping drought-tolerant Sonora wheat—Nate Siemens and other farmers like him will gladly grow it.