Almonds Reach 1 Million Bearing Acres

Farmers still trading wine grapes for more profitable tree nuts in California

by Kate Lavin
wine vineyard almond growers acreage california
Compared to wine grape vineyards, orchards are less costly to establish. Photo: Almond Board of California

San Rafael, Calif.—Bearing acres for the California almond industry reached 1 million in 2017, according to the 2017 California Almond Nursery Sales Report released Tuesday. The figure represents 126% growth in the 20-year period since 1997.

By contrast, the state was home to 560,000 bearing acres of wine grapes as of 2016, the most recent year for which information was available (up 70% from 328,882 bearing acres in 1997). Both acreage reports were compiled by the California Department of Food and Agriculture in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture’s National Agricultural statistics Service.

Grapegrowing associations have reported for years that vineyard owners in the San Joaquin Valley have been pulling up their vines to plant almond trees, which have lower development and maintenance costs as well as the potential to make more money per acre.

“With the cost of developing a vineyard being at least three times more than an almond orchard, and the margins being not as good as almonds, there’s not a lot of incentive for guys to go back in with grapes without a planting contract,” said Jeff Bitter, vice president of Allied Grape Growers in Fresno, Calif. “The only reason to plant open land in the Central Valley with wine grapes would be a planting contract or a water issue, where the grower is worried about the water it takes to support almonds vs. grapes—because almonds take 33% more water, if not 50%.”

Determining profits

Between 1997 and 2017, the average yield per acre among California almond farmers grew more than 30% to 2,250 pounds of almonds, while the average price per pound had jumped 56% to $2.44 as of 2016, the last year for which USDA data is available.

The price per pound was down significantly from 2014, when growers were paid an average of $4 per pound, with California almond growers raking in nearly $7.5 billion. But Peter Vallis, executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Winegrowers Association, says the drop in price is not as black and white as the USDA figures indicate.

“The dollar got a lot stronger, and almonds were trading at a high rate internationally because there was a worldwide shortage of hazelnuts. It was putting extra demand on almonds,” Vallis told Wines & Vines.

Bearing vs. non-bearing acreage
Almond trees can take around five years to start producing fruit; and plantings slowed from 2009 to 2012 but surged from 2014 through 2016. Meanwhile, Bitter of Allied Grapegrowers said grapevine plantings spiked between 2011 and 2014.

According to the report, California nurseries sold at least 9.2 million almond trees since June 1, 2016, and almond farmers have another 300,000 acres of non-bearing trees planted, which will grow the planted acreage 30% when in full production.

“Most guys that would plant something other than almonds would certainly look at wine grapes, but it’s such a huge capital investment to develop a vineyard that, outside of a buyer providing a written contract, there are not going to be people planting grapevines speculatively,” Bitter said.

Beyond wine grapes

Grapes for wine production aren’t the only crop being replaced by almonds. Growers who specialize in raisin varieties also are transitioning to almonds. According to Vallis of the San Joaquin Valley Winegrowers Association, “Anywhere that has good, sandy loam soil” is a candidate for almond growth, though grapevines tend to be less finicky about soil conditions.

The lifetime of an almond orchard, he added, is 17 to 20 years. “Grapes of the right variety will live many times that long,” he said.

Vallis added that the marketing board behind the almond industry should be credited for the crop’s surge in popularity around the globe. “The almond guys assess themselves. They pay it, and they see the benefits,” he said. “You can’t blame a guy for planting almonds. They make a lot of money for a lot of people and have saved a lot of ranches.

“I think the wine industry needs to be watching out,” Vallis said. “It used to be that grapes were the most profitable thing you could grow. That’s not the case anymore.”

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