The California almond is getting a bad reputation.
At least that’s what the numbers show. According to an April report released by the Pacific Institute, a non-profit research firm based in Oakland, almonds are not the most water intensive crop grown in the Golden State.
In fact, almonds tie with pistachios for fourth place in the ranking of California’s water intensive crops and require on average four acre-feet of water per acre. One acre-foot is approximately 326,000 gallons of water. Alfalfa and rice are the top two water users, averaging five acre-feet of water per acre a piece, though alfalfa can sometimes take up to six acre-feet.
The report was released amidst an historic state drought and widespread concern over how the state will utilize a limited water supply. Critics have started searching for a scapegoat, and the California almond is bearing the brunt of the blame.
That’s not to say that almonds aren’t water hungry. Since the story first broke last year, several in-depth reports have highlighted just how much water the California almond is consuming and the myriad ways in which farmers have had to adapt to meet the crop’s demands despite a dwindling water source.
California is the main supplier of fruits, nuts and vegetables nationwide, so it’s no surprise that 80 percent of the developed water supply here is consumed by agriculture. Almonds use only 8 percent of that agricultural water, according to the Almond Board of California.
“These trees produce very valuable crops, both economically and also nutritionally,” said Dennis Baldocchi, a biometerologist at the University of California, Berkeley who grew up on an almond farm. “This is why almonds shouldn’t be demonized as they are. I guess the biggest question we need to ask our society is how many acres and how many tons of almonds do we need given the precious water that we have statewide?” he added.
While almonds spend in water, they return in revenue, according to the most recent data from the United States Department of Agriculture.
California is now the world’s leading producer of almonds, and the nut is the second highest grossing agricultural commodity in the state. Almonds brought in nearly $6 billion in 2013, the USDA’s reports show. The total revenue for state agriculture that same year was $38.7 billion.
Almonds are making more money because the state is now growing more of them. The acreage of land used to farm almonds nearly doubled in the past decade. Other, more water intensive crops like alfalfa still use more real estate than almonds.
And those crops aren’t as lucrative as almonds, according to the Pacific Institute report. Data compiled for that report show that almonds earn around $1100 per acre-foot of water used, while alfalfa earns only $175. Alfalfa is used, though, to feed California’s cows, which play a major role in the dairy industry—the state’s highest grossing agricultural commodity. Milk and cream grossed nearly $8 billion in 2013.
Berkeley’s Dennis Baldocchi said he’d like to change in the script on almonds, turning what has become a scapegoat crop into a larger lesson for the state’s future in agriculture.
“Solutions to this problem are more complex than simple bromides,” he told NBC Bay Area. “Almonds are bad. Almonds are good. We have to really think more carefully about what crops we want to grow, how much water they’ll use and what are the true costs of this.”