Milk, the kind from cows, still is Americans’ favorite complement to a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. But cows’ milk is feeling the heat from milk, the kind from almonds.
You can tell by the trash talk.
“You can’t get milk from an almond,” said Chris Galen, a spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation. “You have to add a lot of other ingredients to make it look like milk.”
Galen’s correct, of course. Almond milk usually contains only two percent almonds, with a lot of water, vitamins and gelling agents mixed in.
But the numbers don’t lie. U.S. sales of almond milk rose 4.2 percent last year to within sniffing distance of $1 billion, according to IRI data. At the same time, while Americans are drinking more organic and full-fat cow’s milk, low-fat varieties are plunging, with skim milk consumption down 13 percent from a year ago, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s June data.
But the real blow to dairy is the widespread replacement of cows for almond groves.
California is tops in the United States for both dairy production — about one-third more than No. 2 Wisconsin — and almonds — 80 percent of global output.
Land in the state devoted to almond groves has been steadily rising — 350,000 acres added over the past decade, enough to double the crop to more than 2 billion pounds, according to Rabobank International — while the state lost about 10,000 milk cows this year through July, a 0.6 percent drop from 2015.
Among the culprits: California’s new higher minimum wage, which is crimping profit margins at labor-intensive dairies more than the groves, and mandatory water restrictions in the fertile Central Valley amid a yearslong drought. That’s pushed almond cultivation to places it’s been rare before — such as dairy farms.
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In Bakersfield, Calif., Olam Farming Inc., part of Singapore-based Olam International, recently bought George Borba and Son’s 1,550-acre mega-dairy — and 8,000 cows were auctioned off in favor of almonds and pistachios.
Richard Wagner, whose father started the family dairy in Escalon, Calif., already has almond trees and is putting in about 300 acres more this year. He’s taking land away from growing alfalfa and corn for feeding cows.
“Back in the 1950s, there were no almond trees in our area,” he said. “Now there are almond trees everywhere. The economics for the trees has been very good. Dairymen have a decision.”
Almond milk is boosting the nut’s popularity, too. Last year, Americans bought $890 million of the stuff, three times the amount of soy milk’s $286 million, according to IRI.
Retailers have caught on. Starbucks is adding almond milk to its lineup of non-milk alternatives, which already includes coconut and soy milk. And as of last month, Dunkin’ Donuts offers it in all its stores.
Milk alternatives have faced scrutiny for not containing very many nuts or natural ingredients. The Silk brand of almond milk, for example, also contains sugar, salt, gellan gum and sunflower lecithin.
A lawsuit filed last year against Blue Diamond Growers, which supplies Dunkin’ Donuts, said its almond milk contained just 2 percent almonds. Blue Diamond’s U.K. website confirms the product’s almond content. Water and sugar are listed as ingredients before almonds. Alicia Rockwell, a company spokeswoman, declined to comment.