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Report: Nut farmers expanded as drought deepened in California

As California declared multiple drought emergencies and imposed mandatory water restrictions on residents in recent years, the state’s almond farmers expanded their orchards by a remarkable 78%, according to new research by Food & Water Watch.

In a brief but critical report issued last week, the climate and consumer advocacy group found that California’s nut farms have grown steadily over the past 12 years, even as the state’s water crisis has deepened. Between 2017 and 2021 alone, almond and pistachio crops expanded so quickly that they required an additional 523 billion gallons of irrigation water. According to the report, that’s enough water to fill 790,000 Olympic swimming pools—or to supply 4 million households with enough water for an entire year.

Over a third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts are produced in California, and almonds are the state’s top crop—California farmers produce 82% of the global supply. According to Food & Water Watch, that’s part of the problem. Their report found that over half of California’s almonds were exported in 2020, which means farmers were “essentially exporting 880 billion gallons of the state’s already limited water supply.”

Almond farmers have long claimed that the bad press around their crop and water usage is overblown. According to the Almond Board of California, the vast majority of almond farmers have embraced micro-irrigation—a low-volume system that uses water more efficiently than traditional spray irrigation—and they’ve reduced the amount of water used to grow a pound of almonds by about 33%. But the popular nut is still famously water-intensive, and farmers may need to use more water as the climate warms. The report notes that crop water demands actually rose in California last year, in response to increased evaporation due to higher temperatures.

As California’s reservoirs reach critically low levels, state officials have started to restrict some farmers’ water rights, and farmers may double the acres of cropland they fallowed last year. But according to the USDA, almond farmers are still expected to expand their orchards to a record 1.37 million acres of nut-bearing trees in 2022.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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