By Dale Kasler
04/16/2015 11:25 PM

Almond orchards have become ground zero in the debate over California’s epic drought, the focal point of criticism that agriculture uses too much water.

The response? More almond trees.

California’s almond farmers are likely to continue planting new orchards in the coming years, increasing production by 2 percent to 3.5 percent a year over the next decade, one of the state’s leading farm economists said Thursday.

“Higher prices and good profits for California almond growers will continue to encourage more planting of almond orchards,” economist Vernon Crowder, senior vice president at Rabobank, said in a report released by the bank. “Nurseries report very little slowing in orders of new trees.”

Representatives of the state’s almond farmers defended the decision to expand California’s orchards, saying growers with adequate water supplies are making rational economic decisions based on the price they can get for their crop.

“That’s the American economic system,” said Richard Waycott, chief executive of the Almond Board of California, in a conference call Thursday with reporters.

“It’s basically 6,500 farmers making these decisions,” he added. “Nobody’s telling them to do that.”

Agriculture in general is under fire as the drought worsens. Critics say farmers use 80 percent of the water dedicated to human use in California but generate only about 2 percent of the state’s economic output. Gov. Jerry Brown has defended his decision to exempt agriculture from his recent executive order mandating a 25 percent cut in consumption by urban water agencies statewide, saying farmers already have had their surface supplies curtailed considerably.

On Thursday, Brown argued against any effort to curtail production of water-intensive crops. “That’s a ‘Big Brother’ move, and we’re not in that position,” Brown told reporters after a drought-related meeting at the Capitol.

“Agriculture is an important pillar of California,” Brown said, “and I think we have to be very slow to be starting to pick” among crops, with policies favoring one over another.

Farmers also say that the 80 percent figure is misleading. When environmental uses are taken into account, agriculture’s share of California’s water supply falls to around 40 percent.

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