Hanson: The Great California Land Rush

Boom or Bust?

I have lived on the same farm for 59 years and seen at least three boom-and-bust farm cycles — one in the late 1960s, another in the early 1980s, and a third right now. I’ve witnessed raisins, for example, at $1,420 a ton 35 years ago, then $410 a ton, then $700 a ton — and now almost $2,000. The old wisdom insisted that almond acreage could never exceed 200,000 acres without a crash, that prices would never go over $1 pound to the farmer, that production could not go much over 3,000 lbs. per acre.

Now? There are now 800,000 plus acres of California almonds, prices near $3 a pound, and new varieties are creeping up to 4,000 lbs. per acre. Some almond orchards remind me of alien organisms: lousy soil, undersized trees, tiny roots — and loaded with nuts to the point that props are needed to keep the trees from toppling over, as agronomy keeps these artificial creations going with daily IV fusions of water and nutrients. It is almost as if anything on the tree that is not a nut is genetically superfluous.

When I began farming full-time in the cresting boom of 1980, vineyard or orchard went for almost $10,000 an acre. I saw it crash three years later and prices dip as low as $3,000 an acre for what was then called “Thompson Worthless” vineyards. By the 1990s, prices were back up to between $7,000 and $10,000 per acre — only to go back down too $5,000 by 2003. And now? Bare land can go for $15,000 an acre and up; a productive vineyard or nut orchard sells for $25,000 to $30,000. “They” say $35,000 an acre is on the horizon.

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