California's deepening drought threatens its $6 billion almond industry

As temperatures recently reached triple digits, farmer Joe Del Bosque inspected the almonds in his parched orchard in California’s agriculture-rich San Joaquin Valley, where a deepening drought threatens one of the state’s most profitable crops.

Del Bosque doesn’t have enough water to properly irrigate his almond orchards, so he’s practicing “deficit irrigation” — providing less water than the trees need. He left a third of his farmland unplanted to save water for the nuts. And he may pull out 100 of his 600 acres of almond trees after the late summer harvest — years earlier than planned reports hapnews.com

“We may have to sacrifice one of them at the end of the year if we feel that we don’t have enough water next year,” said Del Bosque, who also grows melons, cherries and asparagus. “That means that our huge investment that we put in these trees is gone.”

A historic drought across the U.S. West is taking a heavy toll on California’s $6 billion almond industry, which produces roughly 80% of the world’s almonds. More growers are expected to abandon their orchards as water becomes scarce and expensive.

Stuart Woolf president of a 20,000-acre ranch in Huron, California  is prioritizing tomatoes over some of his other crops, like cotton and almonds, since they’re relatively less water-intensive.

With the drought desiccating California’s Central Valley, farmers like Woolf are having to reevaluate their business models based on how much water they can afford. 

Besides growing tomatoes, Woolf also oversees a processing plant that turns them into an annual 350 million pounds of tomato paste. To Woolf, the water is precious.

“All the water in the plant ends up eventually going into the ranch,” Woolf told www.marketplace.org “We’re collecting water from all over the place.”

Water from the processing plant is released back into the fields for a future crop. With the drought this year, Woolf’s access to extra water from other farmers has dried up. His tomatoes are relatively cheap waterwise, but his almonds are much more demanding. 

This year, Woolf looked at extra water costs for 400 acres of his almonds and estimated the patch would have cost him over $1 million. So he cut his losses, grinding up the relatively young trees and mixing them back into the soil for carbon credits.


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