While lettuce and strawberries continue to top gross agricultural output in Monterey County, Calif., a crop that only recently became legal to produce in the county is quickly gaining value. When or if it overtakes the two agricultural mainstays remains to be seen.
Leaf lettuce, strawberries and head lettuce consistently rank as the county's top-grossing crops. At No. 4, broccoli now has competition from cannabis, which is not part of the region's annual report required under the California Food and Agriculture Code.
Cannabis is not part of the annual crop report the county is required by law to issue to the state each year. Instead, state law allows agricultural commissioners the option to provide a separate report to highlight the value of cannabis production in that county. In a separate report, County Agricultural Commissioner Henry Gonzales highlighted the newly legalized industry.
Though up slightly from the previous year, Monterey's gross crop value of just over $4.4 billion is not a record: that happened in 2014 as most counties that year benefitted from higher commodity prices.
At more than $449.6 million, the value of legal cannabis puts the gross agricultural output in the coastal county at nearly $4.86 billion.
The California Department of Food and Agriculture licensed 43 cannabis nurseries and 31 processors in the County of Monterey. While each of the cities have their own taxing and permitting requirements, they did so following a 2015 county decision to allow cannabis cultivators to utilize historic greenhouse space.
According to the county's cannabis report, growers and nurseries produce cannabis in greenhouses left vacant by a cut flower industry undercut by imports after the U.S. government ended tariffs on South American cut flowers. For several years, those greenhouses sat empty as their value declined significantly. As cannabis legalization became imminent, the greenhouses that "could not be given away," according to those familiar with their relative value, suddenly became hot commodities and were quickly snapped up by those speculating on the perceived value of the new crop.
Licenses to operate cannabis farms are issued by the state and county under two general categories: cultivation and nursery. Cultivation licenses are required to handle plants in their mature, or flowering state. Nursery licenses allow cultivation of immature plants and to produce seeds.
Leaf lettuce remains the single-largest commodity by gross value in Monterey County at over $840 million, an increase of over 14 percent compared to the previous year. This value reflects the 2019 growing season and does not account for market disruptions due to COVID-19, which started in early 2020.
Strawberries, at No. 2, were valued at over $732 million, up 4.9 percent from the previous year. Head lettuce came in third at $514 million in gross receipts while broccoli was valued at just over $457 million, or $8 million more than the newcomer crop of cannabis. In all, vegetable production in Monterey County exceeded $3 billion in gross value last year.
Asparagus acreage in the county fell by 57 percent, a victim of cheaper imports, and marked by a year that saw the California Asparagus Commission cease operations.
While lettuce acreage was up just under 4 percent, total spinach acreage fell over 16 percent compared to the previous year. Spring mix acreage was down most dramatically, falling 40 percent year-over-year, according to the statistical report.
Land certified as organic grew 30 percent to over 89,000 acres.
The past decade has seen wine grape bearing acreage fluctuate between 40,000 and 45,000, with the 2019 figure at the top of that range. Production in 2019 totaled 132,000 tons, a significant drop from the previous year's figure of 180,000 tons, and dramatically lower than 2014 and 2009, when over 200,000 tons of grapes were crushed.
Chardonnay grapes are far-and-away the leading variety planted in Monterey County at over 16,000 acres. Pinot noir grapes were harvested from just over 10,000 acres of vineyards in the county in 2019.
Grape prices ranged from a reported average of $2,470 per ton for Mouvedre, a red variety, to #759 per ton for Zinfandel grapes. For white wine grapes, prices ranged from $1,660 for Grenache Blanc to $773 per ton for Gewurztraminer.
The two leading varieties harvested saw prices of $1,880 per ton for the Pinot noir and $1,340 per ton for the Chardonnay grapes.
This year's annual crop report highlights invasive pest species and Monterey County's fight against dangerous insects known to destroy crops. Among the most egregious of invasive species, the Mediterranean fruit fly tops the county's list as the most serious.
The USDA and CDFA characterize the Mediterranean fruit fly (or Medfly) as the single-most destructive agricultural pest in the world because of its ability to lay eggs in over 250 different fruit, nut and vegetable crops, causing them to rot and become unmarketable.
The Medfly was first discovered in California in 1975 and by 1980 California had seen two major outbreaks of the invasive pest. Attempt to control the pest with aerial applications of the pesticide Malathion over residential areas became unpopular with residents and was discontinued in 1990, despite claims that the treatments were effective and safe.
Other worrisome pests for Monterey County farmers include the Glassy-winged sharpshooter, a pest of concern to the region's wine grape producers and the Gypsy moth. Each year the county's farmers export about 400 billion pounds of produce from the Salinas Valley, making their battles against invasive insects that much more important as international markets tighten their restrictions on pest exclusion and maximum levels of detectible pesticide residues that can be found on those fruits and vegetables.