SACRAMENTO — The drought has done little to slow the growth of almond acreage in California, as the more than 1.1 million overall acres planted in 2015 was 6 percent more than the previous year.
Of last year’s total plantings, 890,000 acres were bearing and 220,000 acres were non-bearing, and preliminary bearing acreage for this year is estimated at 900,000 acres, the National Agricultural Statistics Service reports.
The increase came despite removals of about 45,000 acres of trees in 2015 — much of which occurred after harvest — and continues a trend in which acreage has doubled in the last 20 years, according to government and industry statistics.
However, the Almond Board of California downplays the trend’s impact on water resources, citing studies that found most new acreage has replaced other irrigated crops and the total amount of water used by agriculture has held steady since 2000.
“Almonds take up about 14 percent of the state’s irrigated farmland but use 9.5 percent of California’s agricultural water — less than a proportionate share,” board president and chief executive officer Richard Waycott said in a statement. “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.”
As lucrative prices have continued to encourage growers to switch to nuts from other crops, the almond board has fought diligently in the past couple of years to rebut critics who charge the industry places too much of a burden on the environment. Last summer, the board set aside $2.5 million in research into water efficiency, honeybee health and best practices for the current fiscal year.
The board argues that almond trees provide certain benefits to the environment, including groundwater recharge potential and carbon sequestration.
Even as drastic cutbacks in surface water during the drought have prompted some growers in the San Joaquin Valley to remove trees, Kern, Fresno, Stanislaus, Merced and Madera counties still led the state in 2015 in terms of acreage, combining for 73 percent of California’s bearing orchards, according to NASS.
Nonpareils continued to be the leading variety with 310,646 total acres in 2015, followed by Monterey (102,299), Butte (86,152), Carmel (81,449) and Padre (55,493), the agency reported.
The estimates were based on a voluntary survey sent to about 6,000 almond growers as well as almond nursery sales and pesticide application data maintained by county agricultural commissioners and the state Department of Pesticide Regulation, NASS explained.