An almond tree is lifted into a wood chipper after farmer Barry Baker decided to sacrifice 1,000 acres of trees to save water in Firebaugh (Fresno County). Photo: Leah Millis / The SF Chronicle

By Peter Fimrite
24 March 2014

Atwater, Merced County (San Francisco Chronicle) -- A huge shift away from annual crops to nut trees has transformed the California farm belt over the past two decades and left farmers perilously vulnerable to the severe drought that is currently gripping the state.

California farmers have spent past years busily ripping out lettuce, tomatoes and other annual crops in an attempt to sate the nation's growing appetite for almonds, pistachios and other nuts.

The delicious perennials are lucrative, but the vast orchards that have been planted throughout the Central Valley require decades-long investments, year-round watering and a commitment from Mother Nature that she is evidently unwilling to make.

The crisis is a matter of crop flexibility. During droughts, farmers can fallow fields of lettuce and other crops, then replant them years later, picking up pretty much where they left off. That's not an option for nut trees, which need 10 years of growing and a steady supply of water before they yield enough to pay for themselves.

"These orchards are more profitable, which is why the farmers do it," said Jay Lund, the director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis. "It brings more money into California so there are a lot of good things about it, but the farmers have to be careful because a drought can be very tough on them."

The result is that about one-third of California's agricultural land is, Lund said, "very hard to fallow."

Farmers are scrounging for every drop of water they can find - digging wells, tapping aquifers and finding alternative sources. But some are coming to the stark realization that, no matter what they do, there won't be enough water to keep their trees alive.

Barry Baker has decided to sacrifice 1,000 acres of his Fresno County almond orchard so that he can keep the remaining 4,000 acres alive.

"It's a huge economic loss," said Baker, who looked on forlornly this past week as workers felled his beloved trees. "That's probably $10 million in revenue I lost right there, but with the price of water today, up to $2,500 per acre-foot, there is no way I could have found the water this year. A lot of guys are going to have to make that decision in the next couple of weeks."

Baker is actually one of the lucky ones. He has enough well water on his property to keep his remaining trees alive without having to break the bank buying overpriced water from irrigation districts. A great many farmers south of the delta don't have that luxury.

"I think we're going to see a lot of trees die," he said. "It's going to break a lot of farmers." [more]

California drought: How water crisis is worse for almonds



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