Fresno Bee: Alex Padilla says drought help is on the way at almond plant

By Juan Esparza Loera

Sen. Alex Padilla didn’t bring extra water with him when he toured the Superior Almond Hulling facility on Wednesday, but he did point out that the recently signed Inflation Reduction Act provides $4 billion for drought resiliency.

“California’s agricultural sector produces over one-third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts, but the climate crisis – including rising temperatures and historic drought – are compounding the challenges caused by supply chain disruptions and record consumer demand,” said Padilla following the tour of the facility that operates 24 hours a daily for five months during the almond harvest season.

The 16-year-old plant, which processes more than 120 million tons of almonds annually, shut down for Padilla’s 20-minute tour.

Padilla, who did not speak to the media following his mid-afternoon tour, did send out a media statement. Among those who accompanied him on the tour were former state Food and Agricultural Commissioner Bill Lyons and former Westlands Water District board president Don Peracchi.

The inflation bill signed Tuesday by President Biden, said Padilla, “will allow us to reduce the strain on the Colorado River as well as the rest of California’s interconnected water systems so we can better manage the impacts of this historic and unprecedented drought and the broader impacts of the climate crisis.”

The lack of water hasn’t been the only challenge for the almond industry, said Aubrey Bettencourt, president/CEO of the Almond Alliance.

The supply chain crisis, caused by the pandemic, caused disruptions in getting almonds delivered to their overseas buyers in China and other countries. Industry sources said more than 1 billion pounds of almonds that had been ordered by overseas buyers were left sitting in warehouses this year.

“Our two highest priorities are a functioning supply chain and a reliable water supply,” said Bettencourt after accompanying Padilla on the tour. “Without those two things, this industry and community doesn’t operate the way that it does.

“And we will lose not just market share for California, not just in our community, but we’ll lose the (top) position of America in the world.”

Almonds, which are the country’s fourth-largest agricultural export, are becoming a vital part of the food system as world consumers look for more plant-based protein, said Bettencourt.

“This is a stable, plant-based protein that can store for multiple years,” she said.

Beyond food, almonds are also used in many products, said Bettencourt. “There’s roughly 14 aisles in a grocery store. Almonds are in 11 of those aisles, whether it is as flour in a product, an oil or shampoo for your hair, or cosmetics. So, it’s not just a snack and food source.”

Bettencourt praised Padilla for working on the supply chain issue earlier this year, and for advocating for the state’s ag industry during his time as a state lawmaker.

The supply chain crisis, from April 2021 to to April 2022, left a $2 billion loss for the almond industry “as a direct result of our inability to move products to the markets that bought it,” according to Bettencourt.

“This is a product that was harvested last year. It was sold to buyers overseas, but it never got delivered. And because it never got delivered, cash payment was never paid and it never put the cash necessary to operating capital back into our communities,” she said.

The lack of that money, she said, creates a “socioeconomic crisis if we’re not able to move products.”

There are still almonds in storage that have yet to be shipped, she said. The impact on California is huge, said Bettencourt, because the state grows 80% of the world’s supply of almonds.

Almonds have been the No. 1 farm crop in Fresno County for eight consecutive years, with a value of almost $1.3 billion in 2021.

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