Last week we made our first trip out to California’s Central Valley to get a firsthand look into the almond industry. We met with growers, toured a few orchards and a processing facility, and we attended an educational workshop. We came back with many great connections, some powerful insights, and a couple 2-pound bags of nonpareil almonds (thanks to JSS Almonds). Here are a few highlights:
Central Valley grows real food
Driving through the orchards and groves of the Central Valley, you get a different impression than you do driving through the corn and soybean fields in Indiana, In the Central Valley, you pass by citrus and olive trees, grapevines, onion and carrot fields, and of course endless rows of tree nuts. Crops that look familiar on a dinner plate!
Coming from the Midwest, where most of our crops end up in feed silos or they’re used as inputs for an unrecognizable end product, it was amazing to see such a variety of foods grown in one place. You could have a fully balanced diet eating foods grown only in the Central Valley.
Almond growers are adaptive
Almond growers didn’t always grow almonds. Most almond orchards are repurposed cotton fields that were replanted over the past 40 or so years. What’s interesting about this shift is the lack of government intervention. Many crops in the US, like cotton, wheat and barley, are supported by government subsidies designed to protect growers from market volatility. Almonds are not a commodity crop, so when market prices dip below the cost of production, it’s growers, not the government, that take on the loss.
The decision to plant almond trees is a risky one. There’s no guarantee that global demand will remain high by the time you harvest your first crop, and there’s no safety net if your costs out-measure your returns. It must have taken a lot of tough conversations to convince growers to switch from cotton—where profitability is almost certain—to almonds, but the results speak for themselves.
Dennis Soares of RPac Almonds is one such grower. Dennis grew cotton back in the day, but now he grows almonds. As he toured us between his orchards, Dennis pointed out an old cotton processing facility where he worked his first job, on the corner of Cotton Gin Road. The road is now lined with acres of almond trees.
Water rights and Wyatt's political soapbox
Media pundits like to poke at almond growers for soaking up all of California’s water, but the issue isn’t exactly cut-and-dry. Yes, almonds need water, and a lot of it. Is it fair that 10% of California’s water is allocated to almond growers?
This is a discussion of public policy priorities. Take the manufacturing sector for example. Much like agriculture, manufacturing is generally unprofitable in the US due to labor and safety regulations that don’t exist in other countries. Without such regulations, other countries can manufacture goods at a lower cost. Our public policy priority is to protect workers from unsafe working conditions. If our priority was to keep the manufacturing industry from going overseas, perhaps we would provide subsidies for manufacturers.
So why does the government prop up agriculture while allowing manufacturing jobs to move overseas? Because at a public policy level, we decided that the ability to grow food domestically is a matter of national security. The ability to manufacture products domestically is not.
The Central Valley, not the Midwest, is America’s true breadbasket. Except for the frequent droughts, growing conditions in the Valley are excellent. Water is the only missing piece of the puzzle, and the means to deliver water throughout the Valley are already in place (see Central Valley Project and California State Water Project).
The tricky thing about California is the state’s enormous and diverse economy. California is the leading state in agricultural output by a wide margin—producing nearly twice as much as the second-biggest state, Iowa—but California’s Ag sector accounts for less than 2% of the state’s total GDP. Add in the fact that much of the state’s residents are concentrated in big cities tucked away from agriculture, you can begin to see why the odds are stacked against growers in their battle for water rights.
In my opinion, it would be a colossal waste of space to not use the Central Valley to grow food. We already agree that agriculture is a public policy priority, so it seems foolish to pick on California growers for using so much water, especially since actual food is grown there. On top of that, these growers take on far more financial risk than commodity crop producers—without dipping into taxpayers' pockets—to deliver real food to your plate.
*Stepping down from my soapbox*
As you can tell, I’m fascinated (and pretty fired up) by this topic. There are many more layers to the complex issues like water rights and agriculture subsidies, but we’ll save that discussion for future posts. I’ll sign off by reminding you to thank a farmer. They work hard to keep us fed.