Farm Progress

Drought shrivels Fresno County, Calif. Ag values

Second consecutive year of falling Ag values in Fresno CountyTotal organic acreage almost triplesCotton production falls significantly  

tfitchette, Associate Editor

July 15, 2014

7 Min Read
<p>Loaded almond branch about three months ahead of harvest.</p>

The latest victim of California’s multi-year drought is Fresno County’s long-standing run as America’s leading Ag-producing county. For the moment, Tulare County, Calif. now has those bragging rights.

Fresno County agricultural values continued their two-year slide in 2013 but remained above $6 billion for the third consecutive year according to the annual crop report just released by County Ag Commissioner Les Wright.

At $6,436,625,500 it is still the third-largest valuation of agriculture ever in the county which is traditionally number one in the United States. The continued slide in total value points to what some in agriculture circles are calling “failed policies” and “a broken system” when it comes to irrigation water deliveries in California.

Drought and reduced surface irrigation water deliveries, which this year reached zero for the first time ever all across California, pushed Fresno County’s agricultural value down 2.22 percent from the previous year’s figure and more than 6.5 percent down from the record high of $6.81 billion in 2011.

“Our decline actually started showing up in our 2012 crop report; it’s because we have no water,” Wright said.

Fresno County Farm Bureau CEO Ryan Jacobsen said this is evidence of how water policy at the state and national level “are costing us real dollars.”

“It boils down to the fact that our crop report could have been 25-40 percent larger if we’d have had the water supply available for our crops,” Jacobsen said.

Wright and Jacobson say the crop report dollar figures can sometimes be misleading if people look only at dollar figures and do not factor in lost acreage and total production. In many instances, a small drop in yield in a particular commodity can be overshadowed by a per-unit price increase that actually boosts the gross dollars paid for a particular commodity.

Context explained

An example of this can be seen in sweet corn production. While total harvested acres went down about 3,000 and total yield dropped 900 tons, an average price increase of $66 per ton increased the total value of the county’s sweet corn crop by more than $5.7 million. Eggplants saw a similar situation with a total value increase while yield and harvested acreage went down. The same has been seen in major commodities over the years.

Much of Fresno County’s west side began to suffer significantly in 2012 because state and federal water regulators cut surface water deliveries by more than half their promised allocations. Winter vegetable crops that were once plentiful in Fresno County and helped buoy agricultural values to new highs each year were cut back in late 2011 in anticipation of upcoming water delivery cuts.

The same thing happened at the end of 2012 as farmers planted fewer acres of winter vegetables than they did the previous year.

Because winter vegetables are planted late in a given calendar year and harvested early the following year, statistics related to their acreage and production take time to be fully revealed. Wright says the bleeding has only just begun to show up.

“Our 2014 crop report is going to be really bad,” Wright said.

Agricultural statistics at the county level in California are issued on a calendar year and released the following year; that is why the 2013 crop numbers are just being revealed. Those numbers then go to the California Department of Food and Agriculture to be compiled in a state report, which is why those numbers tend to be at least two years behind.

By the numbers

Almonds assumed the throne as king of the crops in 2013 for Fresno County, aided in large part to an 8,400-acre jump in harvested acreage and a $1,000-per-ton increase in average price to the grower. This pushed the nut crop’s total value beyond the billion-dollar threshold to $1.11 billion. That price includes almond meats and hulls. Almond hulls are a key ingredient in the diet of dairy cows.

Total almond yield was down 6,000 tons to an even 200,000 tons. Per-acre yield also dipped slightly.

For grapes that meant their 11-year run at the top spot ended in 2013, though its value is still a formidable part of the overall crop portfolio in Fresno County.

Total grape acreage fell from 255,114 to 189,818 in 2013, according to the report. That dropped the total value of grapes – table, wine and raisin – to just over $1.03 billion, down slightly from the previous year’s $1.1 billion.

Still, Fresno County boasts production of half the world’s raisin supply. The average raisin yield in Fresno County was up in 2013 by just over three tons per acre. Harvested acreage of raisins fell from just over 180,000 to fewer than 123,000.

Wine and table grape crush figures showed an increase in 2013. More than 13,000 tons of table grapes were crushed, up from 12,000 the year before. Fresh-market table grape sales were up 16 percent to 116,000 tons.

Total wine grape crush increased 26,000 tons to 688,000 tons; 2,900 fewer tons of wine grapes were turned to juice.

As a general category, poultry remained in third place among Fresno County’s Top-10 commodities with a gross value of more than $548 million; milk was number four at just over $512 million.

Total milk volume produced by Fresno County’s dairy herd grew 1.9 percent on the year to just over 27 million hundred weight (cwt). At $18.78 per cwt, the average milk price in 2013 was nearly $2 higher than the previous year’s average. Barring a crash in milk prices, the 2014 average should be a record high as milk prices continue to trend well above $20 per cwt.

Pistachios jumped up one spot on the Top-10 list to number 7 because of more bearing acres and a price that was about $800 per ton better than the previous year.

Nearly 38,000 acres of pistachios were harvested in 2013, up almost 4,000 acres from the previous year. Total yield went up, though per-acre yields dipped slightly.

Field crops suffer

The total gross returns for field crops decreased $239.5 million, or 41.77 percent from its previous year value to $413,859,000, according to the crop report. This was due in large part to significant decreases in the harvested acreages of barley, silage corn and cotton.

Garlic showed a significant increase in yield and value, which helped move the crop onto the Top-10 list at number 8.

Fresh garlic acreage rose 1,100 to 6,200 acres and processed garlic acreage climbed 2,400 to 13,100 acres. In all, 53,600 tons of fresh garlic (up from 42,900) and 112,000 tons (up from 84,400 tons) were harvested. The total value of the county’s garlic crop came in at more than $201 million.

Cotton acreage fell significantly on the year, as did its value and Top-10 ranking .

Total cotton acreage came in at 62,300, down from 102,500 the year before. Much of that drop was recorded in Pima varieties – down 133,000 bales to 170,000 bales – as upland lint yield dipped ever-so-slightly to 63,100 bales on the year.

Other commodities reported:

  • Seed crop totals fell by 12.73 percent to $39,706,000;

  • Fruit and nut crops increased in total value by 8.33 percent to $3,204,954,000;

  • Total organic acreage nearly tripled to 99,632 on the year;

  • Oranges increased in value by more than 18 percent to $149 million.

  • Fresh lemons saw significant price and yield increases;

  • Apples saw increases in both harvested acreage and per acre production;

  • Pomegranates decreased in value by $8 million or 38.77 percent due to significant decreases in both harvested acres and price per ton;

  • Alfalfa yield dropped from 535,000 tons to 419,000 tons;

  • Corn silage yields were down from just over one million tons to 661,000 tons;

  • Grain corn yields were generally flat at 8,700 tons;

  • Barley yield was down from 45,400 tons to 6,990 tons;

  • Wheat production grew from 104,000 tons to 133,000 tons;

  • Head lettuce totals were down from 213,900 to 170,700;

  • Leaf lettuce production was up from 82,000 tons to 97,000 tons; and,

  • Processing tomato production was down almost 500,000 tons to just over five million tons.

With the release of Tulare County’s crop report a week earlier, those keeping track will have to wait until Kern County releases its agricultural statistics report in August to know which of California’s top three agricultural producing counties leads the nation in total dollar value. As it stands, Tulare’s value is about $1.37 billion ahead of Fresno.

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Wright said Tulare County’s jump to Number One can largely be attributed to the dairy industry as Tulare’s milk herd makes up a larger percentage of the county’s agricultural portfolio than it does in Fresno County, which is more diverse and tends to be spread more evenly among many crops.

The full Fresno County agricultural report for 2013 is available online.

About the Author(s)


Associate Editor, Western Farm Press

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