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TNFP0502-tim-hearden-milk1_BT_Edits.JPG Tim Hearden
Daniel Sumner, director of the Agricultural Issues Center at the University of California-Davis, notices that dairy, corn and alfalfa acreage in the state is being converted to tree nuts.

As Calif. dairy falters, plant-based milk acres grow

Consumers seek alternatives they think are healthier, more sustainable.

Low milk prices, declining consumption, international competition and the growth of the plant-based milk industry is casting a shadow on the health and well-being of the U.S. milk industry.

Over a period of a single year (2017-2018), dairy milk sales dropped over $1.1 billion, a 7 percent decline according to Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) numbers. The U.S milking herd had declined to 9.35 million, down slightly from the year before.

For plant-based milk products (dairy alternatives or vegan milk as some prefer to call them), estimated sales are expected to rise from 2017’s $11.9 million to a projected $34 billion by 2024. According to Global Market Insights,  the plant-based milk market is expected to surpass $37.5 billion by 2025.

High on the list of those plant-based milk products is Blue Diamond’s Almond Breeze made with California almonds. To give ample evidence of Almond Breeze’s growing popularity, the total number of dairy and corn acres in California has dropped significantly in recent years as dairies have systematically cut acres to make room for new, startup almond acres.

“For the last 10 years or so those involved in the state’s tree nut industry would tell you there isn’t any more suitable land to increase nut operations in California, but cotton declined and new nut operations either moved in or expanded. In more recent times, the state’s dairy industry has been struggling and we’re seeing many of those acres converted to tree nuts, especially almonds,” Daniel Sumner, Director of the University of California (UC) Agricultural Issues Center at UC-Davis, said earlier this year.

He says often it is not just pasturelands used to support dairy but corn fields that once provided feed for dairy cows being fallowed and often replanted in nut orchards.

“What’s more, prime growing acres once reserved for growing high-quality, high nutrient alfalfa in support of the dairy industry are being converted to almond, walnut or pistachio acres by existing producers wanting to add other types of nut varieties to their operations,” he said.

The demand for almond milk and other alternative dairy products is driven largely by consumers wanting more sustainable food sources to support their dietary requirements. The growth of plant-based milk products largely rests in its health and environmental benefits in the eyes of consumers.

Giving credit where it’s due, most plant-based milk is marked by its lower calorie counts, high nutrient values and demonstrated environmental advantages by reducing greenhouse emissions created by livestock operations.

Also fueling the turn to alternative dairy products is the rise in middle class spendable income worldwide. Almond Breeze, for example, is becoming rapidly more popular in European markets as global consumers branch into the plant-based food trend.

In the end, the decline of dairy and the rise in tree nut production in California’s Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys comes down to money. According to The Vegcomist, the average income for the U.S. dairy farmer in 2017 was just over $43,000. Meanwhile, tree nut prices and sales, despite global trade tariffs and complications, remains strong and shows signs of growing slightly with a more positive outlook in the global marketplace.

If further evidence is needed, Blue Diamond Growers’ announcement they were expanding product brands to include new categories, an almond milk creamer in two flavors and refrigerated banana-almond milk. More new products are expected over the course of the current year.

While dairy acres have declined in the Midwest and in California, often in favor of new or expanded tree nut operations, the dairy industry is expanding in Texas as new technologies develop and in anticipation of stronger prices and the hope of higher demand in the future.

In the meantime, California tree nuts continue to experience growing popularity as dairy alternatives and snack foods show strong growth in the current marketplace.

For more news on tree nuts as reported by growers and farm advisors, subscribe to the Tree Nut Farm Press e-newsletter.

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