By Christine Souza, California Farm Bureau

With the ongoing multiyear drought, global logistical challenges and inflationary impacts affecting California’s $5 billion almond crop, leaders in the almond sector say they are hopeful for a return to a more profitable outlook in 2023, with a more orderly supply chain and lower production costs.

Almond Board of California President and CEO Richard Waycott told several thousand attendees at the organization’s 50th annual conference, held Dec. 6-8 in Sacramento, that “the past year is probably the toughest we’ve had as an industry.”

As part of the state of the industry address, Waycott, joined by Almond Board Chair Alexi Rodriguez of Campos Brothers Farms in Fresno County, cited challenges affecting the almond sector. These include limited water supply, logistical and supply-chain issues, rising interest rates, inflation and the war in Ukraine.

“This combination has created this perfect storm that has had a profound impact on our industry,” Rodriguez said. “This industry has been through challenging times before, and with great challenges come great opportunities for growth and innovation.”

She added, “We are a resilient industry, and together we’re going to get through it.”

In presenting the economic outlook for California almonds, David Magaña, a Rabobank vice president and senior analyst based in Fresno, said the state’s almond acreage decreased this year for the first time in more than 25 years. The decrease was first reported in a Land IQ report commissioned by the Almond Board.

Total standing acreage as of Aug. 31 was estimated at 1.64 million, compared to 1.66 million acres at the same time in 2021, the report stated. Bearing acres—orchards producing almonds and planted in 2019 or earlier—increased slightly to 1.34 million from 1.31 million last year. Nonbearing acres—new plantings going back to 2020 but not yet bearing almonds—dropped to 294,000 acres from 353,000 acres in 2021.

“On the supply side, we expect to continue to see large volumes of almonds—depending on the weather and depending on water—in the next few years,” Magaña said. “The most optimistic view I have is the global middle class will continue to demand food that we grow here in California, including almonds.”

California growers this year are expected to produce 2.6 billion pounds of almonds. This is less than the amount shipped in each of the past two years, which were the two largest production and shipment years since record keeping began. Waycott said, “Hopefully we can see things come into a better equilibrium.”

Looking ahead, Waycott told attendees that the Almond Board plans to drive global demand through marketing programs and new product development, such as consumption of almonds to promote skin health and use of almond hulls as a food ingredient.

In addition, Waycott said, the Almond Board is halfway to achieving its 2025 almond orchard goals to achieve zero waste, increase environmentally friendly pest management, reduce dust and increase water efficiency.

In a panel session on managing less water, farmers and water leaders discussed approaches such as use of more groundwater recharge and development of regional strategies.

“It’s a little difficult to talk about groundwater recharge in a drought year,” said Daniel Mountjoy, director of resource stewardship at Sustainable Conservation. He said the state, growers and water districts must be prepared to Aapply water to the land when it does arrive.

“The most economical way to store water in the state right now is putting water back on the ground and into the aquifer,” Mountjoy said.

Groundwater sustainability agencies are exploring incentives to encourage farmers to recharge in optimal locations, he said.

Fresno County farmer Stuart Woolf of Woolf Farming, which is an irrigator in the Westlands Water District, discussed his response to water shortages.

“Years ago, we started running all of our budgets based the return per acre-foot of water, and that really drove a lot of our plantings,” Woolf said. “I never contemplated that I would ever consider taking out almonds so I could grow more row crops, but fortunately, we’re in a position to do that.”

Woolf said he expects to fallow 1,100 acres of almonds and plant 1,500 acres of row crops.

“We’re losing money,” Woolf said. “They (almonds) use over 4 acre-feet, and I can turn around and grow row crops and actually make a lot more money. I would encourage everybody in the room to be looking at these numbers and looking at your alternatives.”

Searching for solutions, Woolf said, he farms ground in other counties and is looking into growing drought-tolerant crops, including agave for tequila.

“We’re going to give it a try. I have a test plot with about 4,000 plants, so we’re trying to think about these things creatively,” Woolf said.

During a panel discussion on almond pollination, Elina Niño, an entomologist who specializes in honeybees at the University of California, Davis, discussed research related to self-pollinating almond varieties.

Niño said UC research shows yields are higher when honeybee colonies are used for pollinating these varieties. In response to a question about the number of hives needed per acre to pollinate almonds—usually two hives per acre—Niño said, “That is still the question that remains to be answered. This is something that is going to have to be an individual decision for growers.”

The Almond Board conference began 50 years ago as a half-day meeting to share research findings with growers.

Since then, said Stanislaus County almond grower and processor Jim Jasper of Stewart & Jasper, the annual event has become “the Super Bowl of the industry.”