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California almond farmers face tough choices

By Scott Smith
Associated Press

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FIREBAUGH, CALIF.: With California’s agricultural heartland entrenched in drought, almond farmers are letting orchards dry up and in some cases making the tough call to have their trees torn out of the ground, leaving behind empty fields.

In Central Valley, Barry Baker is one of many who hired a crew that brought in large rumbling equipment to perform the grim task in a cloud of dust.

A tractor operator drove heavy steel shanks into the ground to loosen the roots and knock the trees over. Another operator, driving a brush loader equipped with a fork-like implement on the front, scooped up the trees and root balls and pushed them into a pile, where an excavator driver grabbed them up in clusters with a clawing grapple.

The trees were fed into a grinder that spit wood chips into piles to be hauled away by the truckload and burned as fuel in a power plant.

Baker, 54, of Baker Farming Co., has decided to remove 20 percent of his trees before they have passed their prime. There’s simply not enough water to satisfy all 5,000 acres of almonds, he said.

“Hopefully, I don’t have to pull out another 20 percent,” Baker said, adding that sooner or later neighboring farmers will come to the same conclusion. “They’re hoping for the best. I don’t think it’s going to come.”

There are no figures yet available to show an exact number of orchards being removed, but the economic stakes and risks facing growers are clear.

Almonds and other nuts are among the most high-value crops in the Central Valley — the biggest producer of such crops in the country. In 2012, California’s almond crop had an annual value of $5 billion. This year farmers say the dry conditions are forcing them to make difficult decisions.

Gov. Jerry Brown last month declared a drought emergency after the state’s driest year in recorded history.

The thirst for water has sparked political battles in Washington, D.C., over use of the state’s rivers and reservoirs. This month President Barack Obama visited the Central Valley, announcing millions of dollars in relief aid that in part will help the state’s ranchers and farmers better conserve and manage water.

Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, said he expects that almond growers will be removing trees through the spring and summer because of the drought. “I have no doubt permanent crops will be taken out because of this,” he added.

Tim Lynch of Agra Marketing Group said power plants in the state nearly have more wood chips from almond trees than they can handle.


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