Growth of the Nut

Back in August, I took a drive along some rural roads in Yolo County, on the edge of the Sacramento Valley, that I’d become familiar with on long bike rides 15 and 20 years ago. Most of the county is on the flat floor of the valley and was given over to agriculture — crops that even a city dweller like me could identify on the move included rice, sunflowers, alfalfa, tomatoes. Some nut and fruit orchards, too. That’s still a lot of what you see.

Northern and western parts of the county are hilly, though, and when I’d ride through, most of those areas appeared to be used for pasture with the occasional appearance of a grain crop wrapped around the hills’ contours.

In August, I was surprised to find that a lot of that former pastureland has been transformed into what I assume are almond orchards. I drove past a spot where, long ago, a couple of other cyclists and I had taken a break from riding against a fierce north wind. Back then, in 2006, it was a big open field with some abandoned-looking farm equipment that we ducked down behind to get out of the wind. Now that spot is all nut trees.

I stopped to take pictures along one of the routes I traveled, Road 6. Looking at the result — it’s the black and white shot below, which I just had developed — I realized that maybe Google Streetview would show the same scene over the years. The most recent shot Google has is from May 2012. Here’s a little of what the change looks like (and a before/after slider of the scene is here).

Along Road 6 in the Dunnigan Hills, Yolo County, May 2012. Credit: Google Streetview.
Along Road 6 in the Dunnigan Hills, Yolo County, August 2022. Credit: Dan Brekke.

The transformation is not shocking; it’s part of the vast expansion of almond and pistachio acreage that’s overtaken much of the Central Valley.

If you live here, the puzzling thing about this changed landscape is that the last decade is one of the driest periods, if not the driest, since California was colonized 250 years ago. The state’s water supplies are dwindling, a situation that’s supposed to become more challenging as the effects of climate change accelerate. Given that there’s not a lot of visible irrigation infrastructure here, I assume that water is being pumped out of the ground to support these thirsty orchards. I haven’t looked into who the adventurous growers or hedge-fund investors are who have launched this experiment in the middle of our drought. It’s quite a gamble.