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Serving: West

Has California seen its agricultural 'heyday?'

new almond orchard
Almond acreage in California has exceeded 1 million as popularity of the high-value crop continues to grow.
Could issues including SGMA and a host of regulations coming out of Sacramento be the end of growth in the state's agricultural sector?

We recently carried a story online that asked, “Has U.S. farm income turned a corner?”

Missing from the optimistic tones in the national story, as is often the case, is what’s happening in California – still America’s leading agricultural state by gross value.

Several years of drought (now over after last winter’s epic rain and snow) reduced overall gross values across the state, though some individual commodities found success due to acreage increases (almonds and pistachios) or simply a better year in 2016, as cherry growers experienced.

Like the recent solar eclipse which cast a shadow across North America, water restrictions and regulatory constraints continue to darken success among the state’s agricultural sector, according to two well-known and respected California farmers.

A.G. Kawamura, the former Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and current CDFA board member Don Cameron told Western Farm Press recently that all is not rosy for an industry that just a few years ago grossed over $55 billion from the sale of food and fiber products.

I spoke with both at length, asking them questions including, "Will the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) be a ‘hard-stop’ for rapid growth in the tree nut industry?”

The act can’t help but at least be a stiff headwind to epic acreage increases in almonds and pistachios. The state’s almond crop is now at over one million bearing acres and climbing.

Both agreed that regulatory issues are an anchor to growth in California’s agriculture sector, though they stopped short of “death-knell” predictions often made by some in the state’s farming sector.

SGMA can’t help but be that 'hard stop' to rapid growth in the tree nut sector as the state nears the deadline to ensure its aquifers don’t dry up – a move certain to limit water to farms. Still, many growers will continue to do what they do best – find enough water to plant the highest-valued crops possible. Kawamura and Cameron continue to do this.

Part of the conversation sought ideas to heal the state’s agricultural economy and allow it to flourish again. That’s where true leadership can shine as the sector weathers a regulatory storm surge brought on by what Kawamura characterizes as “anti-agriculture” attitudes in Sacramento, particularly in the Legislature.

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