Photo Essay: Climate Change in the Central Valley

Pistachio trees stretch across the landscape at Gary Norton’s pistachio farm southwest of Fresno. The heat and drought-tolerant pistachio is increasingly popular with Central Valley growers; “Almonds are for yourself,” Norton jokes. “Pistachios are for your kids and your grandkids.”


A Time of Reckoning in the Central Valley

Bay Nature - Climate change is upending agriculture and land use in California’s Central Valley

by Mark Schapiro

June 23, 2019


Almonds are not about to disappear, but since 2006, the acreage devoted to pistachios in California has more than doubled, from 150,000 acres to more than 300,000. As it gets hotter and drier, the range of pistachios is expanding northward, as the range of almonds retreats in the same direction. The state will produce about 1.4 billion tons of pistachios by 2024, according to the trade group American Pistachio Growers, a more than 40 percent increase over 2018 harvest levels.

“Almonds are for yourself,” Norton quipped. “Pistachios are for your kids and your grandkids.”

He gestured toward the peaks of the Sierras. “It’s like the fertile triangle here,” he said. “We’ve got mountains, desert, fertile soil, mild climate.”

Indeed, the forebears of pistachios come from Mesopotamia—the fertile river system nourished by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the Middle East and the birthplace of agriculture. (Other heat-tolerant crops from the same region, such as pomegranates and figs, are also booming in California.) California farmers have also benefited from the rivalry between the U.S. and Iran, once the world’s largest pistachio producer; tariffs imposed on Iranian pistachios reached 240 percent in 2017, helping California producers compete.

The Burroughs farm represents another trend in the valley. Between 2007 and 2017, the number of acres devoted to organic agriculture in four of the valley’s largest counties—Merced, Tulare, Stanislaus, and San Joaquin—nearly doubled to 58,486 acres. Organic is one of the fastest-growing segments of U.S. agriculture generally, and some organic methods may better withstand climate stresses.

The scene on the Burroughs farm contrasts greatly with the spartan pistachio orchard near Five Points. The rows under the trees here burst with life—wildflowers and cover crops like radishes and mustard plants (good for bees), filagree, and grasses like rye and foxtails, which enrich the soil. “When we quit spraying herbicides, the ground just springs up—grow, grow, grow,” Burroughs says. The land hosts multiple species of birds, small mammals, and insects, many of which prey on pests. The ground is far more absorbent than it once was, he says, reducing dependence on irrigation or groundwater access which, soon enough, will be curtailed.

The Burroughs Family Farm grows organic almonds, using nitrogen-fixing cover crops that improve the soil and create habitat for wildlife and insects, many of which are predators of almond tree pests. (Photo by Jonno Rattman)


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