Image via the Almond Board of California.

published on May 12, 2021 - 2:27 PM
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A survey from United States Department of Agriculture predicts an increase in almond production from last year.

But while the survey foretells more acreage coming online for Fresno County’s most valuable crop, growers are already facing the reality of a drought, going so far as to pull out their years-long investments, casting a shadow of a doubt on a sunny outlook.

The USDA’s subjective forecast estimates that the 2021 harvest will increase by 3% from the previous year, yielding 3.2 billion pounds.

The forecast comes from a telephone survey of 500 almond farmers conducted from April 19 to May 6 and bases the conclusions on opinions from growers.

Dry and warm conditions in February and early March made for “very good” pollination activity, according to the USDA.

Production per acre is forecast to be at 2,410 pounds per acre — 3% lower than in 2020.

The prediction surprised Fresno County Farm Bureau CEO Ryan Jacobsen, who thought production would be right at or even below last year’s levels.

“It’s been a very dry spring, that typically helps to have a strong crop,” said Jacobsen.

While dry springs might be good for blooms by keeping them on the trees, the reality is the largest driving force is going to the availability of water, Jacobsen said.

In Fresno County, growers have already pulled out between 350-400 acres of trees, said Jacobsen. It can take as long as five years for trees to even begin producing nuts.

Daniel Hartwig, resource manager for Woolf Enterprises, says he’s heard of farmers shaking their trees now and getting nuts off the branches to lessen the amount of water they have to dedicate to their trees this year. For a tree with a 25-year lifespan, in theory, you’re giving 4% or 5% of the investment, said Hartwig.

“If a large number of growers are taking those steps to address the drought, then I imagine there will be an impact to that number,” Hartwig said.

The amount of bearing land in California is expected to break the 1.3 million-acre mark, according to the survey. Total acreage in 2020 was 1.6 million acres.

Getting water this year is going to be tough. The recent emergency drought declaration should help streamline water transfer requests, but prices are still high.

In an interview before the drought declaration, Jose Gutierrez, chief operating officer for Westlands Water District said that supplemental water in Western Fresno County could be as high as $1,200 an acre-foot, up from $285 an acre-foot in 2019.

“There have been farmers who have been struggling for over a month and we haven’t hit the hardest part of the summer,” said Jacobsen.

Jacobsen is bullish about global demand for California almonds.

A majority of almonds grown in California go out for export, according to the Almond Board of California. Year-to-date, 602 million pounds have shipped domestically compared to 1.63 billion shipped worldwide.

Growers have long depended on foreign markets to sell their goods. Without them, farmers can face price drops from supply gluts.

In 2020, countries shut down ports and logistics because of the pandemic, getting almonds around the world became more difficult.

“We are still dependent on the strength of the export market, but from all indications, the numbers continue to strengthen,” said Jacobsen.

Acreage has steadily increased every year going back to 2012.

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