Why an almond ban?

Secretary of Agriculture Ross was fast with the defense of almonds, which I would hope would be the case since it has been a hot topic.  But it feels so right, so good to criticize almonds (and I have for years).  Why a single-crop ban?

1.  It is readily enforceable.  Visual inspection would be sufficient, the delineation is clear (almonds, no, everything else, yes).  The pain is contained to a very small segment of the population, some of whom are buffered by their wealth.

2.  It would free up genuine wet water.  One million acres of almonds use four million acre-feet of water and even in California, four million acre-feet of water is real water.  That’s about the amount of annual overdraft in the San Joaquin Valley during this drought.

3.  Almonds seem frivolous.  I like them myself, but they are just a snack.

4.  The only justification for almonds is that they draw high prices, but that means that a public resource that everyone wants right now is being transformed to private profits for a few.  The conserving public isn’t getting to enjoy the use of that money in exchange for their sacrifice of water.

5.  Almonds, especially the half quarter million acres of almonds planted since the start of the 2006 drought, feel like an arrogant fuck you to the rest of us.  The planters knew of drought and decided they’d go ahead, plant trees that must get water and break the aquifers if they had to.   Those are everyone’s aquifers, but again, not everyone’s enjoyment of almond profits.

An almond ban doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing.  It could be ‘no new trees in declining groundwater basins’.  It could be ‘we’ll protect our historic almond industry in the Sac Valley but not expansion since 2006, since they must have known about drought’.  But it keeps getting mentioned because it makes a lot of intuitive sense.   If the State Board does nothing on tree nuts, Secretary Ross will have to keep giving her practiced answers.

ADDED 4/14: Almonds themselves are not evil, but overdrafting our aquifers and destroying our riverine habitats to provide cheap almonds to the world is not the choice I would make.


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19 responses to “Why an almond ban?

  1. Uti

    Exactly. It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing on almonds. Couldn’t it be structured on some sort of seniority basis? The folks in the Westlands won’t like that, but they gambled and planted trees in a drought.

    Then there’s the other sacred cow in the room. Who uses 15% of the water? Alfalfa, of which 70% goes to dairy cows and we ship a bunch overseas.

    Why should consumers in this country have less selection and higher prices for table vegetables so that some investors in agriculture can make big profits off of the state’s diminishing water supply?

  2. Ott

    I find it hard to understand the multitude of bans and rules while trying to manage the current drought. A better solution were simply to lower the water quota and let the farmers to sort out which crops they want to grow… Isn’t US supposed to celebrate free markets? But all this looks very much like a command economy.

  3. Vanshar

    Works for me. I drove from LA to Portland recently, and my jaw was on the steering wheel seeing all of these billboards to the effect of “Vote out the Democrats for causing the drought” posted in front of hundreds and hundreds of hectares of almond orchards. Amazing.

  4. I like your summation, very clear. The 48,000 new acres of almonds planted in 2014 strikes me as arrogant, that there holds a confidence (a right??) that they will extract or muscle water from others or the environment. Our use of water is careless and fails our Public Trust responsibilities to be accountable, to each other, to our natural resources and to future generations.

  5. I see the logic, I like the simplicity, and I like the idea of making it forward-looking. But does it have a precedent, a legal leg to stand on? Because it’s obviously discriminatory. Do almonds and almond farmers get equal protection?

  6. onthepublicrecord

    I have never thought of almonds as a protected class. Discrimination on the basis of ‘permanent crop in an increasingly variable climate’ seems reasonable to me.

  7. Magari

    First, I love the blog. Thanks for your efforts. On an earlier post, you stated that on average crops require 3.5 acre-feet/acre of water. But below, in the Times (based on data culled from a UNESCO report–an odd source, admittedly), they paint a different story. As one who is trying to wrap my head around the issue of crop water use efficiency, do you mind explaining the disparity?


  8. onthepublicrecord

    What you are looking at there is the way food is assembled. When I say that crops use about 3.5af/acre plus or minus about 15%, I am talking about all the little purple dots, which are mostly the same size (except for the tropical plants, like mangoes and okra). But the plants in the field will mostly grow big, live a whole season and produce what fruits they will on 3af/acre (and then some for salt flushing, frost protection, stuff like that). When you eat that fruit/veggie directly (a carrot on your table), your indirect water consumption is on the small purple dot scale.

    For the big dots, you’re seeing one of two things. For meat, a field crop is fed to an animal and you are eating the animal, in which case, a lot of the sun and water that supports the animal goes into its own metabolism. Or it takes a whole lot of a crop to make a serving (rice, lots of wheat to make bread, very many lentils).

    That’s why I sometimes mention that I am biased towards the crops that are directly eaten by people.

  9. Magari

    If I read you properly, you’re saying that these are two different ways of measuring water use. You’re 3.5 af/a is the measure of how much water an acre of crops need to survive and bear their crop (whatever quantity that may be). The Times is a measure of how much water it takes to produce a certain quantity of crop. Is there a reason to prefer one measure over the other? Also, does your 3.5 af/a hold for vilified crops, like rice and cotton? I know this isn’t consumed directly, but according to your argument that’s roughly the water required to keep the plant alive and bearing its fruit.

  10. onthepublicrecord

    My guess is that the Times is referring to the amount of water it takes to make a standardized serving of food on your plate.

    Cotton is actually a pretty non-thirsty crop; towards the end of the season they stop irrigating for dry-down which kills the plant and makes it put its energy into the cotton boll? I am not sure why; if Cannon comes by I am sure he could tell us. Efficiently irrigated cotton is probably lower than 3.5 acft/acre.

    The plant species of “rice” has a wide range of water needs, but the most recent thing I have heard the varieties grown in California use under 4acft/acre. It used to be that Sac Valley rice used some 12-14acft/ac, when growers in the Sac Valley used long stem rice (not long grains of rice, but varieties of rice that were very tall) and kept water flowing continuously through their paddies. The SWRCB made them hold the water in their paddies for water quality reasons (they had to hold the water for their pesticides to decay), and so rice growers switched to short stem varieties that don’t need flow-through conditions. If you see a rice paddy in mid-season, the rice plants cover and shade the entire surface of the water; there is little evaporation from the surface of standing water, only transpiration through the plant. So rice has gotten down into the usual range for crop ET. Maybe it is 10 or 15% higher.

    I don’t generally vilify crop types for water use; they just aren’t that different. I respect all well-managed irrigation methods as well. To me, the important factors are things like: is it fed to animals or humans? Is it an important food to humans? Is waste (like deformed fruit being left in the field) a big factor for this crop?

  11. Magari

    Certainly food for thought…thanks for your replies.

  12. I gotta say, I expect a less knee-jerk reaction from OTPR than this. Surely we could address the shortage more fairly by curtailing all farmers who planted new acreage during this drought, regardless of whether it’s almonds, pistachios, alfalfa or whatever, and shutting off wells until the overdraft subsides (pun intended). I realize California has never addressed groundwater like this before, but neither had Colorado, until we shut off the vast majority of wells in the South Platte basin after the 2002 drought. You have emergency powers, use them. That’s fairer than picking any industry to suffer the entire burden- no matter how arrogant they are. I don’t really want to get dragged into a defense of beneficial use, but part of managing a public resource is accepting that people, given equal access to it, might use it for different things, and they all have the right to do so.

  13. dzetland

    (1) I see this is not April Fools. As an economic idea, it sucks (vs water markets, where WWD and other almond farmers would surely be high bidders), but as a political argument, it’s genius, since (a) farmers have been playing chicken by planting trees without solid rights (“go ahead and stop my overdrafting and take the blame for $millions of capital losses and dramatic TV coverage”) and (b) it’s REALLY a wake up call for “the end of abundance” or a sea change in attitudes.
    Grandpa to grandson: “I remember when we grew crops and waited for Sacramento — not the clouds — to bring water…
    I support this b/c the ST economic cost would be far less than the LT change in attitudes and management, especially in the absence of markets. Maybe farmers would “allow” them to happen if this was the alternative.

    (2) Cotton and other crops “go to seed” when denied water b/c the survival instinct is to throw seeds when you’re dying so the next generation is possible, on the return of water.

  14. Magari

    Regarding your #1, Brown doesn’t really have ST costs since he’s done as governor. The Democratic party can probably survive a draconian imposition on the Central Valley, since that is deep red anyway. Enough city dwellers will understand the “they take all our water” argument.

  15. onthepublicrecord

    I expect a less knee-jerk reaction from OTPR than this

    Hey now! I have been knee-jerk about almonds for years now! Actually, I am indifferent between tree nuts. But the idea that people would plant permanent crops now makes me foam at the mouth and twitch.

    shutting off wells until the overdraft subsides (pun intended).

    I like the way you’re thinking.

    • > the idea that people would plant permanent crops now makes me foam at the mouth and twitch.

      Sure. But why ban permanent crops straight up rather than enforce the hydrologic risk that these guys assume? You were late to the party, you wanted to game the system, you wanted to dare us to shut you off? Too bad. Seems less arbitrary than picking on almonds, or all tree nuts, or even all permanent crops.

  16. There is some sense to the idea that a rational water policy would result in fewer almonds being grown in California. What I object to in the whole debate is this line: “Almonds seem frivolous. I like them myself, but they are just a snack.”

    Quite the contrary. Almonds are a nearly perfect food, high in fiber, dense in calories, and loaded with the most beneficial types of fats. See, for example, Jane Brody’s recent NYT post, “Nuts are a Nutritional Powerhouse.” http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/03/30/nuts-are-a-nutritional-powerhouse-for-rich-and-poor/?_r=0

    Let’s have some perspective. We need to measure not gross water use, but water used per unit of value produced. If you don’t like market prices as a measure of value, try some nutritional metric like calories per gram or healthful oils as a percentage of total calories. If you do that, almonds are no longer the poster child for everything that is wrong with California water policy.

  17. brad

    Almond farmer here, so mildly biased…

    Beef and dairy are both unsustainable at current populations and consume waaaaay more water than almonds. I say charge more for the agricultural water. And watch cattle leave the state. The new almond acreage should be determined by water district, but the expansion is silly, I agree. Demand has gone up, but if water costs reflected supply, I think the expansion would’ve been tempered.

  18. Jennifer F Evans His servant

    Dear Californians, I have recently learned of your almond tree needs. I want to encourage you to get back to your roots so to speak. I believe that if you ask God to heal your land and you follow his commands HE WILL answer your request of the righteous man and women. This is what the Lord says: “But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.” (‭Jeremiah‬ ‭17‬:‭5-8‬ NIV) Join me and my church Midway Baptist of Columbus NC in praying for Rain, RAIN, and More Rain to Heal your land as God’s will allows. To God be the Glory. Ps. The movie Faith Like Potatoes is a true story about hardship and Gods provision :)