The drought has reduced California’s water supply to an all-time low, prompting officials to mandate strict cutbacks in urban communities. Farmers, who went unaffected by the regulations, have said they have already made enough sacrifices during the drought by fallowing hundreds of thousands of acres of fields and uprooting almost countless fruit trees.
But a crop forecast released two weeks ago by the U.S. Department of Agriculture seems to tell another version of the story—at least in the almond market. The industry for the lucrative little nut is booming, as California growers have planted tens of thousands of acres of new trees during the driest dry spell in the state’s history.
From 2014 to 2015, the area planted with bearing almond trees increased from 860,000 acres to 890,000. That’s more mature almond trees than there have ever been before in California, and in 2014, in spite of intense drought and highly publicized economic fallout in the San Joaquin Valley, farmers harvested a record crop of 2.1 billion pounds in 2014. In fact, farm employment even increased in the San Joaquin Valley from 2013 to 2014.
The almond industry has of late been portrayed by the media as a water hog, though this may not be an entirely fair characterization. Almond farmers have dramatically increased their water use efficiency, according to industry representatives, who say it now takes on average a third less water than 15 years ago to grow each almond.
But critics say this hardly matters, since all the water the industry has saved has gone right back into new orchards. Each year the industry uses as much water as the city of Los Angeles would use in three years, according to a 2014 Mother Jones article.
About two thirds of the almonds grown in California—essentially all the almonds in America—leave the country, with the majority of the exports feeding China. The industry was worth about $5 billion in 2012 and has scored record harvests repeatedly in its past decade of explosive growth.