Opinion Columns & Blogs

Richard Waycott: Almonds help make California strong

A sweeper piles almonds into windrows before a harvester collects the nuts.
A sweeper piles almonds into windrows before a harvester collects the nuts. The Modesto Bee

If you’ve been around California for any amount of time, you’ve noticed that the face of farming in our state has been changing. Some of the fields that used to be lined with tomatoes or lettuce are now producing high-value, perennial crops like wine grapes and tree nuts.

Some have suggested that this shift is bad for California, claiming that these perennial crops reduce jobs and use more than their fair share of key natural resources.

Agriculture is like every other economic community in the United States. We are trying to take the raw materials at our disposal and deliver greater value to our families and our communities.

To understand how the changing agricultural landscape is impacting California, you must first understand the reasons behind the shift. The Central Valley is home to some of the most productive farmland in the country. It’s a great place to grow a wide range of crops, but it’s not the only place to grow many of them.

You can visit Florida and find thriving fields of tomatoes or head up to Oregon for fresh strawberries. California is, however, almost the only place in the country to grow the majority of tree nuts – and it is the only place you can effectively grow almonds. That fact creates a big competitive advantage for California – and a competitive advantage means a better return on investment on both the capital invested and the natural resources employed, not just for farmers but for the state as a whole.

According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, revenue for California agriculture increased about 88 percent between 1967 and 2010, from $19.9 billion to $37.5 billion. During that period, the total applied water use for crops in California was reduced by 20 percent. That period also coincides with rapid growth in the almond industry. In the past 20 years, almond shipments have tripled while the amount of water needed to produce one pound of almonds has fallen by a third. More value creation with fewer natural resources employed equates to a sustainable agricultural industry.

A recent The Modesto Bee article (“Almond boom has downside in fewer farm jobs, less crop diversity,” Sept. 27) argued that because almond growers don’t require intensive manual labor to harvest their crop each year, growth in family-owned almond orchards is hurting overall agricultural employment in the state. That is a significant oversimplification. Thinking only of agricultural jobs as men and women laboring in the fields each summer disregards the mostly skilled labor that handles, processes, ships and sells agricultural products.

In fact, according to the data from the California Economic Development Department, overall agricultural sector employment is stronger than it’s been in years.

Similarly, accusations have been made that it’s somehow a bad thing that some of our almonds are exported to consumers around the world. First, it’s important to know that the domestic market remains the largest market – by far – for California almonds. Furthermore, one of the strengths of the U.S. economy, and a principal pillar of our economic development, is global trade. According to the USDA’s most recent trade statistics, almond exports alone support more than 47,000 American jobs. More than that, we should all be proud that the Valley is a driver of American exports, and that we can not only feed ourselves but bring revenue in from overseas.

The reverse – having America relying on other countries for our food – is not a situation we want to find ourselves facing.

While several aspects of almond farming in California are changing, there is one thing that hasn’t changed: the farmers themselves. Around 90 percent of California almond farms are family farms, many of them into their third and fourth generation.

Californian almond farmers want nothing more than to raise America’s favorite nut in a sustainable way for generations to come, and we should be proud of their accomplishments and their contributions to this great state.

Waycott is CEO of the Modesto-based Almond Board of California.