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Almond Rush Raises Tough Questions During Dry Times

Apr 7, 2015

Almond Orchard near Newman, California
Credit Lesley McClurg / Capital Public Radio

Conveyer belts carry millions of kernels through sorting machines in a giant processing plant in the western San Joaquin Valley near Newman, California.      

Jim Jasper: “So the almonds go in there.”

Jim Jasper is the president of Stewart and Jasper Orchards.

Jim Jasper: “We can speed this up… we can slow it down…”

Last year the facility hulled and shelled more than 40 million pounds of almonds -- most of which were headed overseas.

Harley Brinkman is a food technologist at one of Blue Diamond's four gift shops.

Harley Brinkman: I really like our new glazed the snickerdoodle almonds and our blue cheese crackered pepper new season almonds.

But, even as product lines expand and prices soar -- Jim Jasper worries about the plant’s future.

"Yes, we should be farming here. We have some of the best soils in the world. We have a Mediterranean climate and there's a limited number places in the world that have that type of climate." - Daniel Bays

On a walk through his orchards he points to his neighbor’s property. 

Jim Jasper: “There’s 80 acres of almonds up there straight ahead. They’re dead. And, they didn’t have any water.”

He says in fifty years of farming -- weathering many droughts – his anxiety level has never been so high.  

Jim Jasper: “I’m very very leery of being able to produce a nice crop because of what the trees went through last year and what they’re going to suffer through this year." 

Stressed groves are common throughout the dry, cracked Central Valley.

Daniel Bays is a third generation farmer in nearby Patterson.

He’s watering his almond trees with as little water as possible through deficit irrigation.

Daniel Bays: “So, instead of irrigating for your ideal crop you’ll cut that back -- stress that tree a little more at certain times of the year. That impacts your crop the following year but at least you can keep your orchards alive.”

McClurg: “So, each year that the drought goes by the tree gets more stressed overtime.” Bays, “Yeah.”

And, he’s irrigating with salty groundwater. 

Daniel Bays: “The salt load, the mineral load that we’re putting on trees and putting into our soils reach a toxic level with the plant and start to have detrimental affects to the plants that we’re growing.”

For the second year in a row -- Bays – like his neighbors -- received a zero allocation from the Central Valley Project.

In other words, he won’t get any federal water from the Sierra.

This year’s snow-pack was five percent of normal.

Watering with groundwater in areas south of the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta, not only withers orchards, it pollutes the environment. 

Tom Stokely: “What we call poison land that contain high levels of selenium, salt, boron, arsenic and other toxic substances that become mobilized when they irrigate them causing water pollution and wildlife hazards.”

"If California were really serious about the drought it would ban the planting of permanent crops in areas where there's interruptible water supplies and groundwater overdraft." - Tom Stokely

That’s Tom Stokely. He’s a water policy analyst with the California Water Impact Network.

Stokely: “Almonds use more water than all of the indoor residential usage in California which is a huge amount of water especially when it’s being exported.”

He worries that the almond rush could lead to a resource imbalance.

Stokely: “One concern is that almonds will be able to out bid cities in water markets during extended droughts.”

Stokely emphasizes that he’s not against almonds. He’s critical when they’re grown in parched areas of the southern half of the Central Valley.  

Stokely: “If California were really serious about the drought it would ban the planting of permanent crops in areas where there’s interruptible water supplies and groundwater overdraft.”

But, farmer Daniel Bays defends farming in the dry region because so many fruit, nut and vegetable crops thrive south of the Delta. 

Bays: “Yes, we should be farming here. We have some of the best soils in the world. We have a Mediterranean climate and there’s a limited number places in the world that have that type of climate.”

Dry times illuminate tough trades.

The almond industry fuels the state’s economy with $11 billion dollars. It employs more than a 100,000 people. It also uses about eight percent of the water consumed by humans in California.