One Thirsty Nut: Almonds and the California Drought

by Nelly Czajkowski

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a Friedman student in need of a snack will reach for a bag of almonds. Almonds are a nutrition student’s best friend. High in fiber, protein and good fat, almonds will fill you up without an added side of guilt. So why does this Friedman student (or perhaps more appropriately, WSSS student) think twice before reaching for another handful of these delicious protein-packed super snacks? Water. Or rather, the lack thereof, in its California birthplace.

Eighty-two percent of the global supply of almonds comes from California. Almond acreage in the sunshine state has doubled in the past twenty years, increasing from 418,000 acres in 1995 to more than 800,000 at the beginning of 2014. Farmers across the state ripped out less lucrative row crops, like cotton, and replaced them with almond groves. And as the holy grail-like health benefits of almonds were increasingly publicized, demand increased, rewarding those made the switch and encourage others to do the same. Between 2006 and 2013, California almond production doubled from 912 million pounds to 1.88 billion pounds. Almonds, along with grapes, are considered the highest value crop in the United States.

However, almonds farmers are no longer patting themselves on the back. California is in the middle of what is predicted to be the driest year in the past half-millennium. As California’s drought worsens, almond farmers find themselves in a difficult situation. Almond trees require a lot of water, at least 30 inches per acre to attain maximum potential yield. This translates to about 1.1 gallons of water per almond. An average serving of almonds is 23 nuts—or 25 gallons of water. A one pound bag of almonds has approximately 370 nuts. That’s approximately 400 gallons of water, or, more visually, 15 kiddie pools full of water.   While this would not be an issue in a typical year due to the highly streamlined irrigation system, California is currently 28 inches behind its average year to date rainfall. And there is only one month left in the rainy season.

So what’s a farmer to do? Some farmers are ripping out their youngest trees in order to save water for those trees currently producing. Others are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars into high tech micro irrigation. And some are just praying for a miracle. So the next time you reach for a handful of almonds, remember the water. Or lack there of.

Side note: Think pistachios or walnuts could make a great substitute? One pistachio requires 0.75 gallons or water and one walnut requires 4.9 gallons of water. And they are both primarily grown in California (about 90% of yearly harvest). Ouch.

Nelly Czajkowski is a second year AFE student. She is currently obsessed with recent lime shortage and spends her spare time researching conspiracy theories explaining the related price increase. Learn more about her on our Meet Our Writers page.



The Friedman Sprout is a monthly student run newspaper that aims to serve the student population at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, prospective students, and alumni. Our mission is to report on newsworthy information that affects the Friedman community including nutrition research, food policy, internship and volunteer opportunities, as well as school events. Our editorial slant is that of sustainability in food and nutrition.

1 comment on “One Thirsty Nut: Almonds and the California Drought

  1. Michael Marello

    Very nice article on an increasing important topic Nelly. Thanks for writing it. I would like to add that the largest use of water per corp-acre in California is alfalfa. While it takes about 30″ to cover the evapotranspiration (ET) requirements of almonds and pistachios combined, it takes about 55″ to cover alfalfa. Most of the alfalfa is used to feed livestock which use even more water. Cotton has a higher ET requirement than almonds and is not a “cash crop” as almonds definitely are. Growing cotton in California makes very little sense. Cash crops that are really important to California are nuts, tomatoes and vegetables. It would make sense to stick with these cash crops in California at environmentally sustainable levels and leave the others to less ideal growing areas.

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