It is nearly a cliché to hear laypeople or enviros say that ag should stop growing alfalfa in the desert!!! and start growing higher value crops. If you press for examples of high value crops that would be a good choice for growers, the first two examples are always vines and almonds*.
Really? What the world needs is more almonds? More wine? As we foresee another couple billion people and international famines, you think we should commit our world class farmland to almonds? Yes! That’s the ag solution for California! Almonds will support the farmers! Almonds get such high prices! Then I wonder if people have really thought that through.
The good prices for almonds are the result of excellent work by the California Almond Board. The Almond Board has done magic and created demand for more than a billion pounds of California almonds in the past fifteen years. They have run marketing campaigns to get Americans to buy more almonds (“A can a day, that’s all we ask.” Do any of you really want a can of almonds a day?). They have created new almond drinks. They’ve introduced almonds into breakfast cereals. (Think back to the mid-nineties. Don’t you remember that breakfast cereals rarely had almonds in them?) California almonds have replaced and destroyed every other major source of almonds in the world. Right now on the Almond Board front page, they report happily that almonds are the number one nut ingredient in food.
This really is superior work by the Almond Board and I can only imagine that the walnut and cashew boards look on in envy. They have done great job placing a billion pounds of almonds every year (Almond Almanac, pg 24). But understand this clearly. This is not the market responding to some innate world desire for almonds. This is demand creation and pushing on behalf of a specific crop. Looks an awful lot like corn, doesn’t it?
You know what? I don’t really care. I like almonds and I’m happy that growers are making money on a crop. This is fine as long as we’re all wealthy and willing to consume luxury foods. But as a policy preference for what we do with California’s water, I think it’s a pretty crappy example. (Lots of this applies to wine as well.) I think that what the world is going to need as we add another three billion people is cheap, nutritious and portable foods. Like grains. Planting almond trees and grapevines commits ag land to those two things for decades; you can’t get out of them to plant wheat without destroying your investment**. So yes. Almonds and vines get high prices now. But I don’t think they should be the example of what California ag should look like and I am not sure they could even continue as successes if more acreage were converted.
*Vines are what we call grapes. Vines. No one confuses that for kiwis, which are also grown on vines. After someone says vines, your next question is table, raisin or wine? Because you are savvy like that. (Well, if you are really savvy, you look ’em over and guess. Armenian, from Fresno? Raisins. Can’t tell, from San Joaquin Valley? Table. Overeducated? Wine grapes.) Almonds are always pronounced aaminds (very soft d) to rhyme with salmon.
**I’d be happy to consider a vision where California ag always supplies the world’s luxury produce and the Midwest moves out of corn into a broad range of field and truck crops. But I don’t see the Midwest moving out of corn and soybeans until the federal subsidy regime changes. Mostly, I think that we are going to need the world’s breadbaskets to be breadbaskets.