California Drought Hits World’s Top Almond Producer

Extreme heat and a limited water supply are jeopardizing the future of the $6 billion industry

Close up of almonds hanging from the branches of an almond tree
A historic drought has choked the state’s water supply and threatened future almond production. joseviparra / Pixabay

This year’s historic drought in the western United States is threatening California’s almond production. As much as 88 percent of the state is suffering through “extreme drought” conditions, with the most severely impacted area hitting the state’s food-producing Central Valley.

Faced with no alternatives, some farmers are being forced to let their crops die. It’s an unwelcome development for the state’s highly profitable, rapidly expanding almond industry.

“A lot of growers are having to go through a stressful time to make the water they have last to keep their trees alive,” said Richard Waycott, CEO of the Almond Board of California, according to the Terence Chea for Associated Press.

Restricted by a limited supply of water, California farmers struggling to sustain their crops—almonds included. Hundreds of crops are grown in the state’s Central Valley, which produces most of the nation’s fruits and nuts. Heat-loving crops like avocados, tomatoes and strawberries thrive in the region’s Mediterranean-like climate but require extensive irrigation to survive the scorching summer heat. Limited water supply has some almond growers harvesting their crops earlier than usual, while others are faced with choosing which to water and which to let die.

“We may have to sacrifice one of them at the end of the year if we feel that we don’t have enough water next year,” almond farmer Joe Del Bosque tells the Associated Press. “That means that our huge investment that we put in these trees is gone.”

Farmers like Daniel Hartwig have already ripped out thousands of dead almond trees. "It breaks your heart," says Hartwig to Camille Camdessus for Agence France Presse (AFP).

Almonds are among California’s top agricultural exports—second only to dairy products. The state produces roughly 80 percent of the world’s almonds, shipping about 70 percent of its yield overseas to places like India, East Asia, and Europe. The popularity of the nut has soared in recent years, with the state’s almond production jumping from 370 million pounds to 3.1 billion pounds in the last 25 years.

“All of this increase in almonds and this increase in water demand, it’s been done at a time when there’s virtually no increase in water supply,” David Goldhamer, a water management specialist at the University of California, Davis, tells Associated Press. “The water embodied in the production of those almonds is being exported out of this country.”

When the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released their 2021 Almond Forecast in May, they predicted a record-setting 3.2 billion pounds. In July, they scaled the estimation back to 2.8 billion pounds due to record heat and drought. Nearby reservoirs like Shasta Lake and Lake Oroville have been drained by more than two-thirds to meet the water demands of farmers and residents.

This instance isn’t the first time almonds have come under fire for being a particularly thirsty crop. The trees need water year-round, and that level of consumption can come at the expense of California residents.

“If we’re conserving in the cities so that they can grow more almonds, it’s simply not fair because it’s not benefiting the majority of Californians,” Tom Stokely, a board member for the nonprofit California Water Impact Network, tells the Associated Press.

Drought and heat waves aren’t limited to Califonia—climate change is threatening food production around the world and putting farmers in life-threatening heat conditions. As the impacts of climate change become more severe and droughts more frequent, the state may need to reassess if almonds are a financially and environmentally sustainable option.

“The profitability of growing almonds is not the same as it was in the past,” says Jim Jasper of major almond producer Stewart & Jasper Orchards to the Associated Press. “The world is going to start to see less almonds.”