Driving through the Turlock countryside, almond orchards dominate the landscape and according to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service, the healthy nut has taken over large parts of California also.
The NASS reported Wednesday that California’s 2015 almond acreage is estimated at 1,110,000 acres, up 6 percent from the 2014 revised acreage of 1,050,000. Of the total acreage for 2015, 890,000 acres were bearing and 220,000 acres were non-bearing. Kern, Fresno, Stanislaus, Merced and Madera were the leading counties in almond acreage, having 73 percent of the total bearing acreage.
The rising popularity of the almond is no surprise to Stanislaus County growers. In 2013, almonds took the top crop spot from dairy and earned the title as the county’s first $1 billion crop at $1.2 billion. Almonds were also the top crop in 2014, with 164,314 harvested acres bringing in an overall value of $1.4 billion.
According to Stanislaus County Farm Bureau Executive Director and almond grower Wayne Zipser, the almond industry has done a terrific job in marketing the almond to global consumers, which has created an increasing demand for the nut — 70 percent of the state's almonds are exported out of the United States.
"If something tastes good and is good for you, there's going to be a demand," he said.
Even with the historic growth in almond acreage, Zipser said state farmers still haven't out-produced the demand. According to the NASS, preliminary almond bearing acreage for 2016 is already estimated at 900,000 acres, an increase of 10,000 over 2015.
To meet this demand for almonds, local farmers aren't buying up parking lots and turning them into orchards.
"We've seen a lot of land converted from row crops and field crops to almond orchards," said Zipser.
A recent analysis by Sacramento-based agricultural and environmental consulting firm Land IQ confirms what Zipser is seeing locally.
Almond acreage growth across California over the last 10 to 15 years has replaced both perennial and annual crops. This includes cotton, vineyards, non-irrigated grasslands, alfalfa, grain and hay crops, tomatoes, corn, mixed field crops, irrigated pasture and more. Of the almond acreage planted during this time, 96 percent of it lies within the Central Valley’s historic irrigated area, most often replacing other irrigated crops. According to Land IQ, only 42,000 acres of growth over the last 10 to 15 years has occurred within previously non-irrigated grasslands.
“Almonds take up about 14 percent of the state’s irrigated farmland but uses 9.5 percent of California’s agricultural water, less than a proportionate share,” said Almond Board of California President and CEO Richard Waycott. “Because of the industry’s commitment to research and efficiency, growers use 33 percent less water to grow a pound of almonds than they did two decades ago.”
One of the ways the Almond Board is working to better the state's water situation is through groundwater recharge. ABC partnered with University of California researchers, conservation nonprofit Sustainable Conservation, Land IQ and others to investigate leveraging California’s one-million acres of almond orchards for groundwater recharge.
“This research and its application on California’s almond orchards may become an important component in sustainably managing California’s groundwater which will benefit not just farmers, but all Californians,” said Waycott.