Getting to the Nut of California’s Almond Dilemma

Almonds have suddenly become the supreme villain in California’s drought, but we won’t refill our aquifers by boycotting almond milk

Remember soy milk? It was all the rage until the media told us it might give us cancer and cause men to grow a pair (of boobs, that is). Do respectable baristas even allow that swill anymore? It’s 2015, and almond milk is in. That Vitamixed combo of blanched almonds, filtered water, and a thimbleful of organic dates has become the milk alternative for L.A.’s dairy-free elite.

But oh what a difference a week can make. Almond orchards have suddenly become the new alfalfa–an energy-intensive scourge on the Golden State. Just look at the California Almond Board’s Twitter feed. On Saturday, they were still tweeting the recipe for Creamy Almond Caper Sauce. Yesterday, they tweeted three articles defending their water use, including a thank-you note to Gizmodo for writing an piece headlined “Seriously, Stop Demonizing Almonds.”

If you’re unfamiliar, here is a quick recap on how #almondgate unfurled: California is in a massive drought. Last week, Governor Jerry Brown instituted mandatory water restrictions on all municipalities. Agriculture, which uses 80 percent of California’s water, was spared these restrictions. Water-shamers demanded a dartboard. The media discovered that California’s $11 billion crop of almonds is drinking up roughly 10 percent of our agricultural water. Finger-wagging at almonds ensued.

“It’s a little bit rough to be an almond farmer these days,” says Nate Siemens of Fat Uncle Farms. “Almonds are California’s largest legal agricultural product, and we use the most water of any sector of agriculture.”

Siemens admits that the current drought-shaming is a long time coming. His 18-acre orchard is at the southern tip of the Central Valley where the drought has hit hardest. “It’s been really hard just trying to keep trees alive,” he says. “We had no water last year and we’ll have no water this year.”

The reservoirs near Fat Uncle Farms in Wascoe are dry, which means that Siemens and his neighbors are forced to purchase expensive water from northern aquifers, but what might shock consumers is that the increasing cost of water remains nominal in the grand scheme of almond farming.

“It doesn’t matter how much the cost of water is for us, and I think a lot of almond farmers feel the same,” Siemens says. “If they have to pay twice as much, or 10 times as much, or even 20 times as much, it really doesn’t matter because the price of almonds has gone up so much that the profit margins are still telling us that we should plant more and water more. It’s kind of a weird situation to be in. California is in a drought, but the economics are telling us to water more.”

Siemens is straight-faced delivering the sober truth of the matter. He’s not defensive or apologetic, just an honest farmer telling it like it is. He describes his 18 acres as “garden-size” compared to neighbors who tend 10,000 and 20,000 acres of almond trees. He’s a small fish in a big water-less pond.

So far, the solution remains elusive. Drip irrigation will reduce water usage, but causes more surface evaporation, allowing little to no percolation into the ground aquifer. Interplanting is another possibility, but additional crops take water away from the trees.

Will Fat Uncle Farms survive another season? “I don’t know,” Siemens says. “If our water goes out a month from now, then I’ll keep selling last year’s crop until mid-July, but after that I don’t know…you may see an empty booth. It’s definitely making me look more into our wheat or our honey. That’s why farmers diversify.”

Cricket farming? Egg production? Everything is on the table.

“This is our reality, and it’s definitely not clear that almonds are going to be in California’s future,” he says with a shrug. “I don’t think any of us should take that for granted, even people who have unlimited funds.”