FIREBAUGH, Calif. — As temperatures recently reached triple digits, farmer Joe Del Bosque inspected the almonds in his parched orchard in California’s agriculture-rich San Joaquin Valley, where a deepening drought threatens one of the state’s most profitable crops. Del Bosque doesn’t have enough water to irrigate his almond orchards adequately, so he’s practicing “deficit irrigation” — providing less water than the trees need. He left a third of his farmland unplanted to save water for the nuts. And he may pull out 100 of his 600 acres of almond trees after the late summer harvest — years earlier than planned.
“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,” said Del Bosque, who also grows melons, cherries, and asparagus. “That means that the huge investment that we put in these trees is gone.”
A historic drought across the U.S. West is taking a heavy toll on California’s $6 billion almond industry, producing roughly 80% of the world’s almonds. More growers are expected to abandon their orchards as water becomes scarce and expensive.
It’s a sharp reversal from the almond’s relentless expansion in California’s agricultural Central Valley, whose dry Mediterranean climate and reliable irrigation system made it the perfect location to grow the increasingly popular nut.
Almond orchards are thirsty permanent crops that need water year-round, clashing with worsening drought and intensifying heat waves tied to climate change. Scientists say climate change has made the American West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will keep making weather more extreme.
California almond production grew from 370 million pounds (nearly 168 million kilograms) in 1995 to a record 3.1 billion pounds (1.4 billion kilograms) in 2020. During that period, land planted with almond trees grew from 756 square miles (1,958 square kilometers) to 2,500 square miles (6,475 square kilometers).
In May, the USDA projected that California’s almond crop would hit a record 3.2 billion pounds (1.5 billion kilograms) this year. Still, in July, it scaled back that estimate to 2.8 billion pounds (1.3 billion kilograms), citing low water availability and record heat.
“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, president, and CEO of the Almond Board of California, which represents more than 7,600 growers and processors.
As almond prices rose during a previous drought that California declared from 2012 to 2016, farmers and investors planted hundreds of square miles of new orchards in areas that lacked reliable water supplies.