October 5, 2023
As I write this, two of California’s “big three” ag counties have released their annual crop and livestock reports for 2022.
The California Food and Agriculture Code requires county ag departments to submit the data-rich reports each year to the Department of Food and Agriculture. Ironically, the farmers queried by county ag officials for the information are not required to submit the surveys requested by their local agricultural commissioners.
Fresno, Kern, and Tulare counties are the three largest agricultural counties by gross value in the United States. Their diversity of high-value specialty crops is notable as farmers there produce over 150 different crops and commodities.
Tulare’s report is noteworthy this year because of what led the county to achieve its record $8.6 billion value. It’s also a story of what could have been.
Nearly a third of Tulare County’s gross value is milked from cows. Dairies there consistently produce over 10 billion pounds of milk annually, which is more milk than is produced by most states.
California annually produces over 41 billion pounds of milk, making it the largest dairy state. Remove Tulare County’s dairy herd from the state and California would fall behind Wisconsin in the ranking of leading U.S. dairy producing states. Wisconsin annually produces about 31.8 billion pounds of milk.
Wisconsin still produces more cheese than California, which is likely why folks there refer to it as “America’s Dairyland,” though that title may need to be ceded to California. Last year Wisconsin produced about 3.5 billion pounds of cheese while California produced about 2.4 billion pounds. About 90% of Wisconsin’s milk production goes to cheese, including cheddar and Colby. California is the leading producer of Hispanic cheese and is popular for its farmstead cheeses – small-batch varieties produced on the farm.
California’s diversity of agriculture is part of its economic strength. Tulare County Agricultural Commissioner Tom Tucker highlighted how dairy production and the export of various specialty crops makes the county an agricultural powerhouse.
The trio of ag counties vary widely in their milk production, but hold significant acreage of permanent crops including grapes, citrus, pistachios, and almonds. Besides milk, Tulare County leads the state in the production of Navel oranges. Fresno County produces more almonds than any other county, and Kern leads the state in pistachio production.
Because of this mix and the ebbs and flows of commodity pricing, the three counties will commonly trade bragging rights for the No. 1 spot. Last year’s epic milk price, which averaged over $26 per hundredweight, was largely responsible for Tulare County’s mountaintop experience.
Given the potential for epic years in grapes and tree nuts, if ever the stars align and commodity prices for the most popular crops grown in these counties all achieve record-high values at the same time, the gross value will be staggering.
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