Why are California’s organic dairy farmers switching to almonds?

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Photo by USDA via Flickr/CC

California has the highest concentration of organic dairies in the entire country, but the drought is starting to have an impact.

Madeleine Thomas, a fellow at Grist.org has written a two part series looking at the consequences of the drought on the Central Valley. She spent several weeks traveling between the valley and the Bay Area to examine the state of organic dairy farms, and the growing (and water guzzling) almond business.

“California’s drought is remaking agriculture in the Central Valley,” she told Press Play, “organic dairy is no longer sustainable.” For a farm to be organic, the cows must forage on pasture for a minimum of 120 days during the grazing season. But there hasn’t been enough rain to maintain the fields.

At the same time, said Thomas, the price of cattle is at an all time high, so farmers can recoup some of the loss by selling off their herds.

Dairy farmers have been trying to raise milk prices for several years in order to sustain their businesses. Recently, dairy brand Organic Valley was finally able to raise some of the prices for farmers. Consumers will start to see more expensive milk on the grocery store shelves; a gallon of organic milk could reach close to $5. “Will the consumer be willing to continue to support these farmers as they struggle through the doubt?” asked Thomas.

Ironically, some famers are switching from dairy to the water intensive, but more lucrative, almond crop. While the almond industry is exploding, about 10 percent of California’s water supply goes to almond production.

“They’ve prided themselves on being generations-long farmers,” said Thomas. But, “it’s so dire for so many of these farms that it doesn’t really make sense to stay in business anymore,” Thomas said. “especially as the drought continues.”

Listen here.