Survey finds almond growers deeply impacted by drought

A recent survey of California almond growers shows that the state's devastating drought has forced many farmers to drill new wells, rely on salty groundwater and bulldoze trees.

The survey offers a glimpse into farming practices for one of the state's largest crops -- 860,000 acres statewide. Almonds are grown widely in the San Joaquin Valley, including Fresno County where it has become the No. 1 crop, worth $1.1 billion in 2013.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service, in cooperation with state ag officials, sent survey forms to 688 almond growers; 458 were returned.

Statisticians asked questions about several critical issues including water supply, groundwater quality, tree removal and future new plantings.

The survey found that nearly 70% of almond farmers have only groundwater to irrigate their trees -- no surface water or canal water.

About 23% said they had to drill new wells and another 32% were reconditioning an existing well.

Among those paying for a new well is Matthew Efird, a fifth-generation farmer from Caruthers. The Efird family farms about 1,400 acres, with about 500 acres devoted to almonds.

Efird said that an increase in groundwater pumping has caused the water table in his area to drop by about 40 feet over the last five years. He is replacing an older well and dropping the new one farther down. Most wells in his area are about 250 to 300 feet deep.

Efird said he does not know exactly how much his new well will cost, but estimates have put the cost of a well capable of servicing 20 acres at as much as $100,000.

"For some farmers with only a 20- or 40-acre parcel, that is going to be awfully hard to afford," Efird said. "We may see some of those farms go."

Also challenging for almond growers is that some of the groundwater being pumped is less than ideal. Nearly three-quarters of the state's growers, including many in west Fresno County, are using groundwater that is saltier than recommended for almond trees.

Experts say that growers normally use a combination of well water and surface water to avoid the buildup of salts in the tree. But that isn't happening this year as surface water supplies have dried up.

"Consequently, the amount of salt in the trees has placed them under stress and it is being reflected in smaller nut size, reduced growth and the potential for small crops in the future," said Bob Beede, a retired University of California farm adviser specializing in nut crops. He added that salt buildup can kill a tree.

Despite this year's water challenge, the USDA is projecting that the state will produce 2.1 billion pounds of almonds, an increase of 4% over the 2013 crop.

But that could represent a high point: The survey found that 9% of almond farmers pushed trees out of the ground because of a lack of water or poor water quality.

As a percentage of their total almond acreage, large farmers -- those with 600 acres or more -- reduced their operations by 17%. Large and small almond growers combined whittled down 38% of their acreage, the survey said.