Northern San Joaquin Valley ranchers worry about spread of nut orchards

02/01/2014 5:22 PM

02/02/2014 10:55 PM

A simple math lesson showed cattle ranchers what they’re up against: Almonds can fetch $3 a pound these days, and a typical acre can net $5,000 per year after expenses.

Such figures trouble beef producers in the hills just east and west of the Northern San Joaquin Valley, who need several acres of grassland for each market-bound animal, if the land isn’t irrigated.

They worry that the spread of almonds, walnuts and other high-value crops could strain their limited groundwater, drive up land prices and intrude on a way of life that has defined this terrain since the mid-1800s.

“It’s a family operation, and everybody wants to stay in cattle,” said Bill Fogarty, whose forebears started ranching east of Oakdale in the 1870s.

He spoke during a ranch tour that was part of the ninth annual summit of the California rangeland Conservation Coalition, held in and near Oakdale last month.

rangeland – defined as grazing land that relies on rain to produce feed – still covers more acreage than all of the irrigated crops in Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties. And beef continues to be among the top-grossing agricultural sectors, especially when cattle prices are strong and water is abundant.

Water supplies a concern

But the ranchers say the incursion of nut orchards and other plantings, many of them far from river water supplies, puts stress on aquifers that help provide drinking water for cattle.

“All I see going up and down the road is well-drilling rigs, and that’s been a big concern in a dry year like this,” said Paul Ichord, whose 3,000-acre ranch east of Waterford also was on the tour.

Experts cite several reasons why almonds and walnuts have boomed: Consumers around the world have discovered their health benefits. The crops are harvested by machines, reducing labor costs. And the Valley is one of the few places in the world with the climate, soil and water supply needed to grow the nuts efficiently.

Most of the orchards are on the Valley floor, but they have crept into the lower foothills too, thanks in part to deep tilling of otherwise poor soil.

“It’s not hard to understand why,” said Roger Duncan, a farm adviser who deals with almonds at the University of California Cooperative Extension. “It’s very profitable.”

It was Duncan who provided the rough figures on almond profitability during the first day of the summit. He said the net is even better for walnuts, which are not as extensive but still have had major growth in acreage. But he also said the nut boom could be limited by a shortage of water and land.

It’s not a simple matter of cattle ranchers versus nut growers. Some of the ranchers have planted orchards themselves, such as the Jackson-Rodden operation, a tour stop between Oakdale and Waterford where almonds have diversified the income since 1990.

Ichord said almonds are a tempting option because the income could provide a cushion against the down years in the cattle business. He recalled how his rancher grandfather also grew peaches north of Modesto.

But Ichord reiterated the concern about the already scant groundwater being stretched to irrigate new plantings. “Cows don’t drink as much as an orchard, but they’ve still got to drink,” he said.

The coalition includes environmentalists, academics and other people who believe that profitable cattle ranches are vital to keeping rangelands intact for wildlife habitat and other benefits.

They used to think “development” meant just homes and stores. Now they use the term when talking about orchards, vineyards and other intensive farming.

“While we like running cows, we also enjoy the openness of rangeland and the wildlife we share it with,” Fogarty said in a video shown at the summit. He contrasted that with orchards – “a monoculture with lots of crows.”

Fogarty, whose four ranches total about 2,200 acres, said the orchard incursion also has increased rural crime and traffic and made it harder to buy or lease land for expansion.

During a break between summit speakers, California Cattlemen’s Association President Tim Koopmann shared his own experience with a tree crop. His ranch in the hills between Pleasanton and Fremont had walnuts until the early 1980s – low-yielding trees because they had no irrigation.

“I have pruned,” Koopmann said. “I have grafted. We had a little processing plant. So the walnut farming is not foreign to me. But I think it should be confined to the Valley floor.”

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