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Focus on high-value veggies turns profit for California farms

Best Places to Farm: Monterey County farmers successfully navigate farm labor laws, water restrictions, and the nuances of simultaneously growing 15 to 20 crops.

Mike Wilson, Senior Executive Editor

May 17, 2024

4 Min Read
Man kneeling in lettuce field
SALAD BOWL OF THE WORLD: “Some 60% of our nation’s lettuce comes right out of Salinas, and it gets shipped across the nation and the world,” says Zach Barnes, farm manager with Dole Fresh Vegetables in California. Mike Wilson

Editor's note: Farm Futures’ exclusive Best Places to Farm report ranks the financial performance of 3,056 counties. By analyzing proprietary data and the recently released results from USDA’s 2022 Census of Agriculture, Farm Futures averaged weighted ranks of the ratios on return on assets, profit margins and asset turnover for each county. How does your county rank? Visit the interactive map to check the ranking of 3,056 counties and browse other stats.

In a region where many farm businesses plant, harvest and process countless fresh vegetables nearly 365 days a year, it’s no surprise that Monterey County, Calif., landed as one of Farm Futures’ Best Places to Farm.

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“We have the perfect microclimate to grow lettuce,” says Zach Barnes, farm and transplant manager for Dole Fresh Vegetables in Salinas, the county seat. “That’s why we call this the ‘Salad Bowl of the World.’ Some 60% of our nation’s lettuce comes right out of Salinas, and it gets shipped across the nation and the world.”

Barnes manages 3,500 “crop acres” on a land base of 1,650 acres, which means he manages 2.12 crops per year on each acre. He also manages transplant activities with contracted growers on 1,500 additional acres.

Recipe for profit

The county’s marine climate and rich, loamy soils are ideal for floral, grape and vegetable growers, who turn a profit despite land costing $80,000 per acre.

Related:Is your county the Best Place to Farm?

“It’s one of five or six true Mediterranean climates in the world, so we can produce fresh leafy greens, veg and berries almost year-round,” says Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau.

That climate has attracted ag entrepreneurs for generations. “We’ve farmed over 160 years here, and many farms are now in their sixth, seventh and eighth generations,” he says.

Growers here are highly specialized. Dole Food Co., for example, has a team of people dedicated solely to harvest; an average lettuce harvest crew has 35 people who can harvest 2 acres a day. Growers must understand tricky state and federal regulations, labor negotiations, and water restrictions. Yet, they’re motivated by strong market prices driven by dynamic domestic and global demand that fluctuates quickly.

California’s ag industry is a $59 billion business. It is the leading state in cash farm receipts, followed by Iowa, Texas, Nebraska and Illinois. Monterey County is one of the state’s leaders, bringing in $4.6 billion in gross value of farm production in 2022; 75% of that revenue stems from vegetable crops.

An average farm in Monterey County is 300 to 500 acres, growing 15 to 20 crops.

Related:Where are the best places to farm in U.S.?

According to a 2018 study by Monterey County’s ag commission, agriculture supports about 1 out of every 5 jobs there. That robust economic engine is partly due to vertical integration.

Value-added processing took off in the 1980s and expanded in the ’90s, Groot says. “New products and different product lines came on, including veggie trays and bagged salad kits. It is constantly evolving.”

Managers must understand intense agronomics and short turnover in multiple crops. “They need to manage that to the point where you get a solid, consistent harvest,” he says.

Barnes, for example, must know the growing season, contractors and other nuances of as many as 14 crops and hundreds of varieties of each crop. “It’s all a big puzzle in my mind,” he says.

Growers must also understand the farm labor pool. Most smaller farms use contract labor, so they must know how contract labor organizations work.

“There’s a lot of workplace rules in California, so understanding regulations and compliance is a necessary part of this,” Groot says.

Learn more about Farm Futures' Best Places to Farm study and view the interactive map to see where your county ranks.

2022, 2017 and 2012 Best Places to Farm maps

About the Author(s)

Mike Wilson

Senior Executive Editor, Farm Progress

Mike Wilson is the senior executive editor for Farm Progress. He grew up on a grain and livestock farm in Ogle County, Ill., and earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural journalism from the University of Illinois. He was twice named Writer of the Year by the American Agricultural Editors’ Association and is a past president of the organization. He is also past president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists, a global association of communicators specializing in agriculture. He has covered agriculture in 35 countries.

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