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Almond industry defends water usage
Farmers are urged to take advantage of the Alternatives to Agricultural Open Burning Incentive Program to assist with the processing of vineyard and orchard removals through non-burning alternatives. - photo by CECILIA PARSONS/AgAlert

8 Facts about Almonds, Agriculture, and the Drought

1)     All food takes water to grow. Despite all the focus on almonds recently, almonds make up less than 12 percent of the state's total irrigated farmland and use only eight percent of the state's agricultural (not total) water.

2)     Agriculture uses 41 percent of California's total water supply – not 80 percent as often quoted. The California Department of Food and Agriculture has a helpful new blog post based on a report from the Public Policy Institute of California.

3)     Farmers are sharing in the painful sacrifice. The state government is providing farmers with a 20 percent water allocation this year and the federal government is providing zero allocation. In 2014 alone, the drought cost farmers $1.5 billion and caused the loss of more than 17,000 jobs related to agriculture.

4)     Total agricultural water use is not increasing. Many have suggested in recent days and weeks that the shift in crops towards higher value crops like nuts and wine grapes have led to an increase in agricultural water use. But according to the Department of Water Resources, the total amount of agricultural water has held steady since 2000 and actually declined over a longer period.

5)     Agriculture is critical to California's economy. Some have tried to belittle agriculture's contribution to the state by saying it only represents 2 percent of the state's GDP. First, as Bloomberg View notes, that figure leaves out the food and beverage manufacturing sectors, which are directly related to the state's vibrant agricultural sector. Second, and perhaps more importantly, that figure neglects the importance of agriculture to the population of large region of the state. For example, a report from the University of California Agricultural Issues Center finds that of the 104,000 jobs almonds alone contribute to California, 97,000 of them are in the Central Valley.

6)     Almond growers have adopted efficiency measures. Several sources, including the New York Times Editorial Board and a report from the NRDC and Pacific Institute, have pointed to micro-irrigation and irrigation scheduling as places farmers can and should conserve water. We agree. 70 percent of almond growers use micro-irrigation systems and more than 80 percent use demand-based irrigation scheduling.

7)     Most almond growers are not "big ag" – they're small, family farmers. As with any industry, business sizes vary, but according to the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, more than 90 percent of almond farms are family farms and about three-quarters are less than 100 acres.

8)     So how much water does it take to grow almonds? According to data collected from growers, they apply an average of 35.58 inches or 2.97 acre-feet per acre. This is in line with the per-acre needs of many other California crops.

With the average acre producing 2,390 pounds of kernel per acre, that would come out to about 400 gallons per pound. Depending on the size of the kernels, that comes out somewhere between ¾ of a gallon and a gallon per kernel, including its shell and hull.

When California Gov. Jerry Brown announced unprecedented conservation measures last week, attention was quickly drawn to farmers, specifically those in the almond industry, who were accused of getting a “free pass” while the rest of the state is left dry.

In the order, Brown requires that the state must cut urban water use by 25 percent compared with 2013 levels — a goal he aims to accomplish through a number of mandatory drought restrictions, including the mandate that cities can no longer water median strips in the middle of roads and the discouragement of water waste with higher rates and fees.

Not among these conservation measures, however, are rules that extend to farmers — leading many people to believe that agricultural producers have been let off the hook.

Yet, this is simply untrue according to “8 Facts about Almonds, Agriculture, and the Drought”, which was published on Wednesday by the Almond Hullers & Processors Association.

According to the organization, farmers are sharing in the painful sacrifice alongside all Californians as they have been faced with a 20 percent water allocation from the state government this year and zero allocation from the federal government.

“We recognize that almonds and agriculture will need to continue to be part of the solution, but the suggestion that agriculture has been let off the hook doesn’t stand up to scrutiny,” AHPA states.

Additionally, the drought last year cost farmers $1.5 billion, led to the loss of more than 17,000 jobs related to agriculture, and forced many almond growers to pull out orchards.

“None of us want to see our lawn go brown, but not that many people outside of agriculture have lost jobs or huge portions of their income because of the drought,” said AHPA president Kelly Covello.

This clarification was just one provided by the AHPA, who published the fact sheet to correct claims about almonds and agriculture that lack context or are outright false. 

“The conversation about how we’re going to get through the drought as a state is an important one, and it deserves attention, but recently that conversation has been filled with misinformation and bad facts,” said Covello. “We thought that conversations like this ought to feature actual facts so we decided to correct the record on a few things.”

The AHPA also took measures to correct the claim that almonds use 10 percent of California’s total water. According to the association, the actual figure is 8 percent of agricultural water or 3.4 percent of total water — meaning that about 90 percent of the state’s farmland is planted with other crops.

“This mistake is closely tied to the false claim that agriculture uses 80 percent of the state’s water,” said Covello. “Actually according to the state itself, it’s 41 percent.”

Other claims corrected by the AHPA included the idea that the amount of total agricultural water is increasing — it has been steady since 2000 according to the Department of Water Resources — and the accusation that most almost growers are considered “big ag,” as approximately 90 percent are small family farmers.

“If we’re going to have an honest debate about the future of our state, we need to use accurate facts and statistics,” said Covello. “Hopefully this will help add some context so we can have a fruitful conversation based on a full picture of the situation.”