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Conditions Could Change Area Almond Dynamics
Almonds wait to be swept up after being shaken from trees in rural Manteca during the 2020 harvest. Photo Contributed

The current drought — coming within several years on the heels of the previous one — could alter the map for almonds to the benefit of South San Joaquin County growers.

That’s because the long-term dynamics of almond growing coupled with water shortages are prompting growers in the southern and western sides of the San Joaquin Valley who depend on water deliveries from the Central Valley Project and State Water Project to rethink what they plant.

Those farmers have a less stable source of water in times of drought. They are forced to make hard decisions on what crops they will have water to produce.


Westside farmers already

removing older orchards

that are still producing

That means taking out older almond orchards before they reach the end of their productive life in order to have water to keep younger trees that have more harvests in them alive. Typically almond orchards have a 25-year life.

Already Westside growers have been removing older orchards and directing what water they have toward younger trees. At the same time the planting of new almond orchards has been sharply curtailed given the number of years new trees don’t produce and the number of years it takes to recover the initial investment of planting as well as three to five years of water, fertilizer, and orchard management costs while generating no revenue.

Orchard removal due to water shortages wasn’t an issue in San Joaquin or Stanislaus counties during the 2011-2019 drought.

As things stand now, the South San Joaquin Irrigation District has indicated as long as everyone – farmers as well as urban users in Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy – adhere to strict conservation measures they will able to meet all water demands this year. The 2022-2023 water year could be a different issue.

Without being forced to prematurely remove almonds, growers in Manteca-Ripon-Escalon will benefit from increased prices typically spurred by droughts.

Prices growers received for almonds hit a record $4 a pound during the last drought. But then almond prices fell to their lowest point in more than a decade last year when California growers harvested a record 3.1 million pounds.

A mature almond orchard uses roughly 1.3 million gallons of water per acre on an annual basis. While it is in line with other nuts such as walnuts and pistachios it’s twice the amount per acre compared to vegetables such as broccoli and lettuce. It is less, however, than alfalfa and rice.

That said, SSJID’s Division 9 south of Manteca and west of Ripon has a state-of-the-art pressurized irrigation water system that has earned national acclaim for how it is employing technology to significantly reduce water use, boost per acre crop production, combat soil salinity, eliminate power use for farmers to irrigate their orchards and even reduce air pollution by eliminating the need for diesel generators to pump water.


California produces 80

percent of world’s almonds

Almonds grown on 1.5 million acres in the Great Central Valley account for 80 percent of the world’s almond production.

No other country comes close. Spain is next with 202,339 tons but it pales in comparison with the 3.1 billion pounds California produces.

If San Joaquin County was its own country, it would have been the fifth largest nation in terms of almond production in 2019 with 89,000 tons. San Joaquin County would have been sandwiched between Morocco with 112,681 tons and Syria with 88,840 tons.

But compared to other counties in California, San Joaquin County doesn’t make the top five.

It would be No. 6 on the list behind Kern County with 160,158 tons, Fresno County with 145,382 tons, Stanislaus County with 122,571 tons, Merced County with 110,071 tons, and Madera County with 101,071 tons.

To put San Joaquin County’s production in perspective at $449.6 million it wasn’t quite a third of the $1.5 billion that Fresno County grew in 2019. That’s the equivalent of three-quarters of the entire $2 billion overall agricultural production for San Joaquin County.

Agriculture is still king in California as the Golden State’s $50 billion is $22 billion higher than its closest competitor which is Iowa. California produced 13.7 percent of the nation’s $369 billion in agricultural crops last year with most that in the 450 mile long and the 40 to 60 mile wide Great Central Valley.

There are a lot of fruits and nuts in this state. In fact two-thirds of all fruits and nuts grown in this country are from California.

Topping the nuts and fruit list by far is almonds at $6.09 billion wedged between milk at No. 1 with $7.34 billion and all grapes at No. 3 with $5.21 billion.

California exports almonds to 90 countries. The top importer is India. The $100 million they bought in 2019 constituted the largest commodity this country exported to India. Almost 70 percent of all exported almonds are shelled.

They are the fifth biggest California export after, in descending order, aircraft and engines, electric vehicles, unmounted diamonds, and modems and similar communication devices.

Overall the direct economic benefit to the state is pegged at $9.2 billion and directly/indirectly provides 110,000 jobs.

There are more than 100 varieties of almonds grown in California. The nonpareil is the leading variety followed by Monterey, Butte, Carmel, and Padre.

Almonds are not grown commercially anywhere else in the country. That’s because nowhere else in the nation is there a state that can replicate California’s hot dry Mediterranean climate with a well-developed water infrastructure system.


Facts about almonds

Here are a few more tidbits about California almonds:

* More than 90 percent of all almond farms are family farms.

* Many farms are second and third generation.

* Farmers have reduced the amount of water needed for grow a pound of almonds over the last 20 years by 33 percent.

* Growers are working on reducing that by another 20 percent by 2025 using micro-irrigation techniques.

* Dormant almond orchards are being explored as a viable way to disperse excess storm water in wet years to replenish underground aquifers. Initial analysis shows 675,000 acres of almonds have soil conducive for that purpose.

* No part of the almond goes to waste. The shells are used for livestock bedding and as dairy feed. They also can be used to generate electricity as can the trees at the end of their lives.

* Although the California Almond Board won’t shout about it due to the environmental lobby, but as a hard wood almond logs are considered more efficient heat generators for those who still have wood burning fireplaces.

* There are 7,600 almond farms in California.

* The pollination of almond orchards is the biggest of its kind drawing honey bee hives from across the nation in what is also the first crop pollination of the year.

* Blue Diamond indicates depending upon the variety and conditions it can take an almond tree five to 12 years to start producing almonds.

* Most almond trees produce almonds for 25 years.

* The nuts, depending upon the variety, can take 180 to 240 days to mature.

* An average commercial almond tree yields between 50 and 65 pounds.