Farmers in California, the source of 80 percent of the world’s almonds, are rescuing the nut from drought this year by diverting water used for vegetable crops and drilling more wells to keep trees hydrated.
Instead of the 2.5 percent output drop forecast in May that helped spark a rally in almond prices to an all-time high, the U.S. government now expects a 4.5 percent rise in production to a record 2.1 billion pounds (950,000 metric tons).
"Some way or another, a majority of people have proceeded to come up with enough water" for the 2014 crop, which farmers will start harvesting at the end of this month, said Bob Weimer, 68, who began irrigating his 200 acres in Merced County in December, three months early, and added a 12th well. "We’re all keeping our fingers crossed for the next one."
The efforts were necessary to combat a severe drought in California, the nation’s biggest agricultural producer, where little rain is forecast by the U.S. Climate Prediction Center until October or November. Even with the farmers’ changed tactics, prices for the nut consumed often as a snack food and used to make Hershey Co.’s Almond Joy candy and WhiteWave Foods Co.’s Silk almond milk have stayed elevated.
Almonds are fetching more than $3 per pound, heading for an annual average that would top the all-time high of $2.81 in 2006, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Almond Board data show.
"Supply over the next 12-plus months should be O.K., it seems," J.P. Morgan Securities LLC analysts Ken Goldman and Joshua A. Levine wrote in a July 1 report. "After that, rain needs to fall."
California, the nation’s biggest agricultural producer, was in severe drought as of July 15, with more than a third getting the driest rating available, according to U.S. Drought Monitor. Little rain is expected until October or November, the U.S. Climate Prediction Center said. The state is in its third year of insufficient rain, which will erase $2.2 billion from the economy this year, the California Farm Water Coalition said, citing data from the University of California, Davis. That’s down from an earlier estimate of $7.48 billion after groundwater supplies eased the burden on farmers.
As water deliveries were cut, the number of fires increased, and low rivers and streams required officials to give salmon truck rides to the ocean, almond growers had an incentive to conserve water, said Kelly Krug, deputy director of the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service Pacific Region in Sacramento.
Almond trees take about three to four years after planting to bear a crop, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, so they are more expensive to replace than row crops that are planted annually.