Figs require very little water. Even amid long-term forecasts of limited rain and higher temperatures, Kevin Herman believes the trees are likely to produce a good living for the Madera County, CA farmer.
However, the landscape around Herman has changed over the past 20 years. Fig trees still sprawl for miles across the sweltering flatlands near Fresno, but the orchards in the area have been shrinking for decades. During the 1990s, there were more than 20,000 acres of figs here — mostly of the black mission and Calimyrna varieties. Ten years ago, there were 12,000 acres. Now, just 7,000 acres remain, and the problem isn’t going away.
Pragmatic farmers know there are better ways than growing figs to get rich. Herman is just one of many growers who have traded figs for almonds. More than a million acres of almonds now grow in California, and the orchards are still expanding. Herman is convinced there is a financial incentive to grow nuts, including pistachios and walnuts. A n exceptional fig orchard can generate $5,000 per acre, though most don’t do nearly that well. On the other hand, one can expect $10,000 from an acre of almonds.
Still, Herman plans to keep most of his 4,000 acres of figs; about a million trees. The reason is water. Figs need very little — just two feet or so. That’s less than half what it takes to keep most almond trees healthy and productive. The profits on almonds still offset the cost of giving them more water, but Herman believes that in the future there simply might not be enough water to sustain so many almond groves. And the California drought continues.