The high cost of increasing almond yields

The water use of California’s huge almond industry is becoming a major issue in groundwater basins throughout the state.  A searing article in the LA Times by Maria L. La Ganga, Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee and Ian James states that 2021 is on track to see the most agricultural wells drilled since the last drought ended. They report:

Researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey estimated in a 2015 study that more than 1.8 cubic kilometers of groundwater had been depleted annually in the Central Valley because of agricultural pumping since 1962.

Yet in the Mediterranean, almonds were traditionally dry farmed. In Getting in Touch With the Almond’s Desert Roots,  Willy Blackmore wrote:

Even in the wetter Mediterranean Basin, where almonds have been grown for more than 2,000 years, the trees were historically planted much like olives—a crop that many, me included, have suggested as a potential alternative—taking up resident on dry slopes with poor soil unsuitable for row crops. Centuries of farming “concentrated almond into specific regions where well defined land races evolved,” Jules Janick writes in “The Origins of Fruit, Fruit Growing, and Fruit Breeding,” published in Plant Breeding Reviews. “Almond culture became a low input dryland crop in semiarid areas.” In other words, the history of almond farming is not a history of irrigation, even  in California: The first commercially successful almond orchard, planted in the Sacramento Valley way back in 1843, was dry farmed.

Blackmore’s article discusses several drought-tolerant wild or domestic varieties of almonds that could be used as rootstock, increasing drought tolerance. But managing almond orchards for sustainability would require a significant shift in cultivation goals.

In a 2016 interview with Guardian reporter Charlotte Simmons, almond farmer Steve Gleisman said,

What we learn from a system like dry farming is that you can farm from limited water… But of course modern farming looks for maximum yield no matter what you have to put in. And in the case of California, that input is water.

Willy Blackmore noted:

.. yields have jumped from 213 pounds per acre in the 1920s to 1,348 pounds per acre in the 1990s.

In 2020 the yield for almonds in California was 2,380 pounds per acre.

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