Travelers on Interstate 5 or Highway 99 through the San Joaquin Valley pass mile after mile of almond trees, California’s biggest permanent crop.  Almonds are harvested by mechanical shakers, sweepers, and pickup machines.  These generate a lot of particulate matter that contributes to air quality problems in the San Joaquin Valley, helping to account for the soupy air into which travelers from south of the Tehachapis descend.

Almond meat is only about 20% of the field weight of the material that arrives at processing facilities.  It’s hard to see all those almond trees without wondering what happens to all the hulls and shells.  Dairy cows eat crushed almond hulls, which add fiber to their diet.  Somewhere down the line, this must be generating a lot of . . . well, you know.   Almond shells are used in energy co-generation plants and for products like fireplace logs and briquettes, which raises additional air quality questions.

An item on next season’s agenda for almond growers: pollination.  As explained in an LA Times article earlier this year, beekeepers from around the United States converge on California’s almond farms in February for four weeks of a pollinating frenzy.  California’s own bee colonies declined by over 25% between 2003 and 2009 as a result of colony collapse disorder.  So bees have to be brought in from other parts of the country.  The article focuses on Paramount Farming Company, which in 2012 contracted with 26 beekeepers to bring in 92,000 hives from as far away as Maine, Louisiana, Florida and the Carolinas. According to the article, the expense of renting bees represents 15% of Paramount’s total almond production cost.

NPR also did a story on bees this past spring, interviewing a beekeeper names Zac Browning.  Beekeepers now earn as much money renting their bees to pollinate almonds as they do selling honey.  But the bees can’t stay in the almond orchards because, Browning says, “just as quickly as it arrived, the bloom is over and we’re back to desert here.”

Then beekeepers head for places like the northern Plains where flowers bloom all summer.

Anyway, add the health of the nation’s bee colonies to drought as a major variable affecting almond monoculture.

Anyone who saw Ken Burns’ Dust Bowl documentary recently on PBS heard that when wheat prices went down in the 1920s, farmers tried to compensate for lower prices by plowing up more prairie and planting more wheat.  This contributed to a wheat bubble that eventually burst, coinciding with a series of drought years and dust storms that made it almost impossible to grow anything.

Seeing all the new almond orchards being planted in the southern San Joaquin Valley, one has to wonder how long world demand will support the prices almond farmers are getting now.  Is this a bubble that could burst?  And how much water will we have drained from other parts of California to create that bubble?

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