Category Archives: California

How are California’s Almonds Harvested?

Almonds are dominating agricultural production in California. Their water requirements have been in the news this year because of California’s serious drought. We’ve heard that they use 10 percent of the state’s water. And we’ve heard that it takes a gallon of water to grow one almond.

Besides the water requirements of almonds, they have an annual pollination requirement which has resulted in a spring pilgrimage of bee hives to the West Coast each year via commercial beekeepers. Almond growers may pay around 150 to 225 dollars per hive for pollination. According to, a few years ago “it took about 1.5 million colonies of bees to pollinate 750,000 bearing acres of almond trees, producing nearly 2 billion pounds of nutmeats in 2012.” The business is lucrative for the bee keepers who participate, and the service provided by the worker bees is vital to the almond growing industry.

But, did you ever stop to wonder how almonds are harvested?

This seven minute youtube video shows you the whole process from shaking the trees, sweeping the ground, harvesting using a tractor with “Jack Rabbit” equipment, hulling and shelling. It is impressive to see how much automation and machinery is involved. (Never mind that the narrator pronounces the word almonds “amonds”.)

The almond that we eat originated in the Mediterranean climate region of the Middle East.

In 2012, almonds were a $4.35 billion crop in California, and have become the state’s second highest dollar valued commodity, after dairy, and higher than grapes. Almonds are the leading exported commodity crop out of California, with $2.83 billion in foreign sales.

When you think of industrial agriculture, you usually think of corn or soybean row crops. Almonds certainly fall into the industrial production category, as well.

How much energy does California use to move water?

Today’s post is a follow-up of yesterday’s post about Dr. Chu’s talk, debating whether I misunderstood his statement “that 22% of California’s electricity goes to moving water.” The source is no longer available online, and most likely it is a fraction of that, but the subject is important enough to do some further digging. If any readers here have expertise on this subject, please enlighten us with your knowledge in the comments below.

Though it is raining today in Southern California, we all know about the terrible drought conditions in the state which supplies much of our nation with real food – food that actually shows up on our dinner table every day. We should all be concerned. They produce 99 percent of this nation’s almonds and walnuts, 92 percent of this nation’s strawberries, and 90 percent of this nation’s tomatoes.

The more that California experiences a severe drought, the more temptation there could be to move water around, and that comes at a huge energy cost, which enters a vicious cycle, because it takes a lot of water to produce energy. Likewise, desalination can also be used to produce more of their water, but only by using enormous amounts of energy.

I found a great resource paper from 2004 – the NRDC wrote a publication titled “Energy down the drain – the hidden costs of California’s water supply.”

The following is an excerpt from that paper concerning energy use in moving California’s water around:


Moving large quantities of water over long distances and significant elevations is a highly energy intensive task. For this reason, water systems in the West are particularly energy intensive. According to the Association of California Water Agencies, water agencies account for 7 percent of California’s energy consumption and 5 percent of the summer peak demand.

The State Water Project (SWP) is the largest single user of energy in California. It consumes an average of 5 billion kWh/yr, more than 25 percent of the total electricity consumption for the entire state of New Mexico. The California Energy Commission reports that SWP energy use accounts for 2 to 3 percent of all electricity consumed in California.

The SWP consumes so much energy because of where it sends its water. To convey water to Southern California from the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, the SWP must pump it 2,000 feet over the Tehachapi Mountains, the highest lift of any water system in the world. Pumping one acre-foot of SWP water to the region requires approximately 3,000 kWh. Southern California’s other major source of imported water is also energy intensive: pumping one acre-foot of Colorado River Aqueduct water to Southern California requires about 2,000 kWh.

In fact, according to an estimate from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the amount of electricity used to deliver water to residential customers in Southern California is equal to one-third of the total average household electric use in Southern California.


Note that the California State Water Project supplies water to two-thirds of California’s population. 70% of the water goes to urban users and 30% to agriculture.

Obviously, to answer the question in this post’s title, there is great variance from North to South and from East to West across the large state of California. In this next quote, the NRDC paper discusses the distorted low-cost of irrigation water provided by policy.

“It is difficult to calculate the full value of the subsidies given to users of federally supplied irrigation water. This difficulty helps keep the energy costs of water systems buried. Many California farmers still pay the government $2 to $20 per acre-foot for water, which represents as little as 10 percent of the “full cost” of the water, although some farmers are paying more as contracts are revised (e.g., $35 per acre-foot) For new projects built or proposed by the Bureau of Reclamation, water costs are between $250 and $500 per acre-foot.”

The NRDC then describes how opportunists use this cheaply available water for irrigation in a power arbitrage scheme, by selling hydropower at a substantial profit, and further reducing incentives to conserve the cheap water supplied to irrigators.

These issues become complex and convoluted once policy is taken into account.

As for farms specifically, the NRDC paper sums up water use by farms in California, “Ninety percent of all electricity used on farms is devoted to pumping groundwater for irrigation.”

In the Western arid climates where so many people prefer to live, the goal of developers is to supply water from a more water abundant location even if that means pumping it over a big elevation incline, which tremendously increases the energy required to supply the water. Often, these energy costs are overlooked in project planning phases.

I can give you a perfect example of an insane project such as this here in my arid Western state of Colorado. Without a lot of fanfare, a big water project named the “$1 billion Southern Delivery System” began in 2010 which is to pump water uphill through a 53-mile pipeline from Pueblo to Colorado Springs. Obviously, the rapid population growth of Colorado Springs required desperate measures in attempt “not to constrain” growth, and Colorado Springs had the water rights for the project so couldn’t resist. Though environmental groups signed off, they admitted that the huge energy requirements to pump the water uphill are a “greenhouse issue”. If you read about the project there are huge costs involved -including things that you might not think of- like roads and ranchers left high and dry, yet, many are benefiting economically during the construction phase, and there are those who will benefit from the increased availability of water in the Springs. Is it worth it to “not constrain” population growth? The Southern Delivery System’s website states, “Water is the lifeblood of our economic health, and critical to retaining and attracting jobs and business to our region.” I have to wonder how Springs residents feel about paying more for their water to pave the way for more residents in their city.

So, back to the question raised by yesterday’s post. What percent of energy used by the state of California is used to move water?

I wish I knew.

Blogger Dan Brekke summarizes the 2005 California Energy Commission report, “California’s Water – Energy Relationship” in a pie chart here, which would suggest that the amount of electricity used to move water in California is 4.2 percent of its total electrical use, or 48,000 GWh. This is too low, however, because irrigation is put into a separate category and I’d think it should be included as “moving water”, too. Also, more recent studies and papers since the 2005 California Energy Commission’s paper say that the Commission’s estimates were too low; and, that earlier studies overall have been using assumptions which have been too conservative.

(To view yesterday’s post about Chu’s talk, click here.)


About the photo: The Hayfield Pump Lift – photo and description by Chuck Coker @ FlickCC. The Hayfield Pump Lift is part of the Colorado River Aqueduct. The aqueduct carries water from the Colorado River across the Mojave Desert to Los Angeles, California. It is one of three major aqueduct systems that supply water to Los Angeles. The Colorado River Aqueduct carries water 242 miles from Lake Havasu on the Colorado River to Lake Matthews in western Riverside County. It was built by the Metropolitan Water District Commission. It took eight years to build the aqueduct, from 1934 to 1941. The water is lifted 1,617 feet as it passes through five pump lifts. The aqueduct has 92 miles of tunnels, 63 miles of concrete canals, 55 miles of concrete conduits, and 144 siphons. (That adds up to 210 miles. I don’t know what the other 32 miles is made up of.) The Hayfield Pump Lift lifts the water 440 feet. It can be found on the north side of Interstate 10 between Chiriaco Summit and Desert Center, California.

For another great photo see this.

California’s Fall Vegetable Harvest Looks Good

Higher production expected over 2010 harvest

  • Broccoli: Up 8%.
  • Cantaloupes: Up 4%. Nationally up 11%.
  • Carrots: Up 30% above 2010. Nationally, up 30%.
  • Cauliflower: Up 3%.
  • Celery: Up 4%.
  • Sweet Corn: Up 5%. Nationally, up 12%.

Lower production expected
California’s fall harvest of storage onion, head lettuce, honeydew and tomato numbers are expected to be less this year than in 2010 based upon planted acres.

Note that all numbers are based on planted acreages for fall harvest.


Migrant Farm Workers in the PIGS, America, and Elsewhere: Noting a Balance Sheet Correlation

photo source: flickr by ah zut ~ “la cueillette des fraises”
strawberry picking in Sonoma done mostly by Hmong farmers.

This past week the NYTs article, “Hiring Locally for Farm Work Is No Cure-All” described how a Colorado onion and sweet corn farmer couldn’t find enough local help to work in his fields. There are well over 400 reader comments under the article. The NYTs followed up the story with a Room for Debate titled, “What happened to the American work ethic?” It, too, was excellent, so I recommend reading both if you haven’t.

Few people are willing to do the hard physical labor required to farm under often harsh weather conditions while living in social isolation without many city amenities. This is not just an American problem, as migrant labor issues are present in Europe, the UK, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. In the developing world, young rural countryside residents in large numbers are migrating to cities in China, India, Africa, and other nations to escape farm labor.

Today, farming is all about efficiency. Huge farms. Huge hot houses. Big agribusiness. Copious amounts of chemicals. Huge grocery chains. Cheap labor. Robotics. Huge central distribution centers. Cheap transportation. Cheap food. Spoiled consumers. We are in a global competition to produce goods cheaply, including food. Labor costs get squeezed and might even go underground.

A few months ago, I saw the Migrant Workers Journey (2009) photography exhibit in the New Mexico Art Museum in SantaFe. The photographers, Michele Palazzi and Alessandro Penso, focused on the migrant African farm workers who came to a specific region of Italy, Boreano, Basilicata.

[Photo&Video: Michele Palazzi / Alessandro Penso. Editing: Massimo Bui.]

According to the Migrant Workers Journey exhibit, there are almost 4,900,000 migrants in Italy, with 700,000 irregulars. These workers move for miles from East to West and from South to North harvesting melons, tomatoes, grapes, olives and oranges. In Basilicata, there are about 3,000 migrants willing to work 12 hours per day for only 25 euros, living in abandoned rural houses without electricity or running water.

Italy’s migrant farm worker problems are quite well-know, and so are Spain’s.

From a NYTs 2008 article about immigration problems in Europe:

Southern Europe’s tolerance for illegal immigration has several explanations. Its aging populations and booming economies created a need for foreign workers. Its proximity to northern Africa and eastern Europe places it close to countries that supply them. And its economies have traditionally depended more on off-the-books workers.

No country has run more legalization programs than Spain, which has carried out six since 1985. As recently as a decade ago, immigrants made up less than 2 percent of the population. Now they are more than 10 percent. About 40 percent come from eastern and northern Europe; 38 percent come from Latin America; and 20 percent from Africa.

Eventually, this migrant farm worker situation has huge ramifications for entire nations. What I couldn’t help but note from the above NYTs article was this sentence in the second paragraph, “In the last two decades, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece have run at least 15 legalization programs, including a Spanish effort three years ago that was among the Continent’s largest.” That would be the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain)…. the same European nations which were threatening the entire region’s stability due to their fiscal insolvency.

This led me to look at the states within the U.S.

The largest migrant worker population state? California. The state with the worst balance sheet? California. Remember that California’s GDP would equal the world’s eighth largest economy and it is the world’s fifth largest supplier of food and agriculture commodities.

Let’s look at the top seven states which a 2009 Pew Center study named the most fiscally troubled: California, Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, and New Jersey. Next, I’ve compared this list to the 2000 U.S. Census Bureau statistics list of the seven states which have the highest Hispanic populations: California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Arizona, and New Jersey. The strong overlap between the two lists is five out of seven states: California, Arizona, Florida, Illinois, and New Jersey.

Note that immigrant farm laborers are used primary in the temperate climate regions since those are the most productive year round vegetable and fruit producing areas and we all purchase these products, so it doesn’t matter where we live, if we want lettuce or tomatoes in January, then we all benefit and we all share in the real true costs.

I do not wish to make any political or prejudicial statements here, I am only noting observations. The current immigrant farm worker model used by our world’s developed nations has far reaching ramifications beyond the performance of the actual labor, and I’m not the first to say that. The related social, ethical, political, and humanitarian issues have been described many times by others and goes beyond today’s writing. It is a complex subject, and since the developed nations use an economic growth model requiring growing, youthful demographic populations, integrating the farm workers provides that desirable demographic shift providing an ever larger consumer base. When I reviewed three articles on this subject over at VOXEU, economists who wrote articles about Spain and Western Europe viewed the subject favorably.

Just as immigrant labor has been moving into dairy here in the U.S. this past decade, it will very likely advance into the Midwestern corn and soybean growing regions in the not too distant future, too, dictated by demographics. So far, this region has chosen to pay for more advanced and larger equipment over the hiring of labor with hints that robotics may be on the horizon.

Since fruit, vegetable, and all food harvests are seasonal, much of the labor required is temporary, and global markets for these products mean that global wage competition to bring these products to the market races to the bottom, or, perhaps the production itself relocates to regions with cheap labor just as asparagus production has been leaving the U.S. and moving to Peru, Chile, and Mexico in recent years. As long as there are regions of the world wishing to provide the cheap labor required to harvest these crops, agricultural managers willing to hire them, and politics that encourage it, this reality in our agricultural system is here to stay.
——Kay McDonald


References and recommended additional reading:

  1. (TheEcologist) UK: In contrast to the squalid conditions faced by many migrant farm workers, employees of salad producer G’s Marketing live in specially-built hostels with a social centre, sports pitches and a bar. Is this the future of industrial horticulture?
  2. (the Guardian) Open door: The Guardian’s reporting about illegal migrant workers in Spain – The readers’ editor on… a compelling story of modern-day ‘slavery’ Mar 2011
  3. (the Guardian) Spain’s salad growers are modern-day slaves, say charities – Investigation uncovers plight of migrant workers who live in appalling conditions and are paid half of legal minimum wage (includes fascinating 13-minute video) Feb 2011
  4. Why More Migration Makes Sense by Ian Goldin and Geoffrey Cameron Project Syndicate 2011
  5. A European Opening for the Arab World by Volker Perthes Project Syndicate 2011
  6. Needed But Not Wanted by Ian Buruma Project Syndicate 2011
  7. (DailyCensored) African Farm Workers Face Repressive Conditions in Italy Jan 2010
  8. (Mailonline) Immigrant riot in Italy leaves 37 injured after series of beatings by white youths Jan 2010
  9. (the telegraph) Immigrant workers forced into Spanish black market – In a leafy corner of the Casa de Campo, the large park on the western outskirts of the Spanish capital, immigrants gather at illegal weekend markets filled with sellers offering traditional fare from their home countries. Feb 2009
  10. (NYTs) Spain, Like U.S., Grapples With Immigration – In the last two decades, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece have run at least 15 legalization programs, including a Spanish effort three years ago that was among the Continent’s largest. June 2008
  11. California Agricultural Profile 2008 [pdf]
  12. Foreign farm workers caught in a trap 2008 [the Australian]
  13. Immigration in Western Europe by Ottaviano & Peri 2008 [vox]
  14. The Spanish Approach to Immigration by Dolado 2007 [vox]
  15. Immigration and Productive tasks: Can Immigrant workers benefit native workers? by D’Amuri & Peri 2010 [vox]
  16. Canada