Agriculture

California almond acreage continues to grow

New almond trees in June 2015 in a field at Ashlan and Grantland avenues, west of Highway 99 in Fresno. In 2015, Fresno County had 110,995 acres of trees in production and 15,552 acres of non-bearing trees.
New almond trees in June 2015 in a field at Ashlan and Grantland avenues, west of Highway 99 in Fresno. In 2015, Fresno County had 110,995 acres of trees in production and 15,552 acres of non-bearing trees. Fresno Bee file

California almonds, one of the state’s largest crops, increased in acreage by 6 percent last year.

Statewide, a recent federal survey estimates the acreage to be 1.1 million acres. Of that, 890,000 acres of trees are producing nuts and 220,000 acres are young trees.

The leading almond growing counties include Kern, Fresno, Stanislaus, Merced and Madera. The five counties represent 73 percent of the producing acreage in the state.

In 2015, Fresno County had 110,995 acres of trees in production and 15,552 acres of non-bearing trees. Madera had 79,092 bearing acres and 10,039 non-bearing acres.

Almond industry officials say the growth represents strong demand from domestic and overseas consumers. But that red-hot market began to cool last year as the industry’s major export markets, including China and India, bought less. A strong U.S. dollar also hurt sales.

Fresno County farmer George Goshgarian estimates the price of a pound of almonds has tumbled at least 60 percent since September.

“Right now, we may be averaging about $2,” Goshgarian said. “And some guys are getting really close to being in the negative.”

And it remains to be seen if the decline in prices will significantly slow the planting of new acreage.

60 percentDrop in the price of processed almonds since September, Fresno County farmer George Goshgarian estimates

The preliminary acreage estimate for 2016 is 900,000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Goshgarian hopes the foreign markets will rebound, and he isn’t convinced prices have stabilized.

Many in the industry are waiting for the USDA’s “subjective” estimate of the 2016 crop. That report, expected May 10, will help dictate the direction of the market.

Later in the season, the government will issue a more thorough estimate known as the “objective” estimate. That is due in June.

One factor that could slow almond expansion is the availability of water. The state recently emerged from four consecutive dry years that cost farmers deeply. With a lack of surface water, farmers spent millions to dig new wells or repair old ones. The industry also suffered from a public backlash for how much water it used to grow nuts.

Industry officials have tried to combat the bad publicity with figures showing that the shift to higher value crops, like almonds, has not led to a rise in agricultural water use.

According to figures from the California Department of Water Resources, water used by agriculture has held steady since 2000 and declined over a longer period of time because of higher efficiency irrigation systems.

“Because of the industry’s commitment to research and efficiency, growers use 33 percent less water to grow a pound of almonds than they did two decades ago,” said Richard Waycott, chief executive officer of the Almond Board of California.

Robert Rodriguez: 559-441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob

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