By Padma Nagappan
While almonds and pistachios consume 10 percent of the state’s agricultural water supply, they also generate 20,800 jobs and $4.2 billion in annual revenues, according to a new study by researchers at the University of California, Davis.
Alfalfa, on the other hand, consumes more water than the nut trees and is planted on just as many acres, but employs only 5,000 workers.
“It’s not high in value like other crops, but it’s important because we need it to feed dairy cows, and milk is a high-value commodity in California,” said Josué Medellín-Azuara, a water economist with the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis.
Milk brings in $9.4 billion annually, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and is the farm industry’s No. 1 cash cow.
“There’s so much talk about how much water is used for a single almond,” said Medellín-Azuara. “But a lot of other sectors also rely on the crops grown in California. They’re used as feedstock, as food, they go to food processing, so there are many downstream sectors that rely on agriculture.”
The report calculated that agriculture employs about 400,000 workers and generates $37 billion across 9.4 million acres of irrigated farmland. That represents 4 percent of California’s jobs and 2 percent of its economic output.
Not all crops are water hogs. Vegetables, horticulture, and non-tree fruits consume the least water and collectively employ the most workers—130,000—while generating $12.8 billion in combined sales.
The top five crops in revenue per unit of water use are grown on about 25 percent of California’s irrigated cropland and account for 16.4 percent of water use, the report says. Those crops are responsible for two-thirds of all crop-related employment.
A new report from the same institute released on Tuesday shows that California’s drought will lead to half a million acres of farmland being fallowed, resulting in a loss of 18,500 jobs and $2.7 billion in revenues.