MODESTO -- Farmers are holding their ground ground that keeps rising in value as other players in the economy stumble.
A report from Rabobank said California cropland values rose 20 percent from 2005 to last year.
Stanislaus, Merced and other neighboring counties have shared in the gains, with continued health in the almond and walnut industries and improved fortunes for peaches and wine grapes.
"Agriculture is really a bright spot in the economy," said Tom Orvis, governmental affairs director for the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau. "Land and water are the two major resources."
As farmland values rose, the housing market imploded. Stanislaus County's median home price was at a third of its 2005 peak as of June, according to DataQuick.
Tens of thousands of people in the Northern San Joaquin Valley are without work because of the lingering effects in construction, retail, government and other sectors.
The Rabobank report, "U.S. Farm Land Continues to Dazzle," dealt with land values across the nation. It found that Midwest values grew especially well last year, but it did not account for the severe drought of 2012, which is cutting into yields of corn and other major crops.
The bank noted that land sales in California are not happening often, as most farmers "are enjoying their profitability and choosing not to sell."
Realtor Lane Menezes, who specializes in farms and ranches for Modesto-based PMZ Real Estate, sees the trend. "If you can find a walnut farm for sale, you're doing something good, because there aren't many of them," he said.
The walnut and almond industries have boomed as people around the world come to see nuts as sources of healthy fats.
Walnuts stood out in the Rabobank report, with Stanislaus County orchards selling for an average of $20,500 per acre last year, compared with $11,250 in 2005.
The figures cited by Rabobank come from an annual report by the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers.
That report showed an increase in per-acre prices for Stanislaus County peaches grown for canneries. The industry has declined from its heyday, prompting a shift to other crops by many growers, but the remaining peach acreage is valuable.
Vineyards in the Northern San Joaquin Valley have seen a modest increase in value as wineries boost what they pay for the grapes. The north valley still is far below premium regions such as the Napa Valley, where an acre of grapes sold for as much as $300,000 last year, the bank report said.
Rabobank said most of the interest in buying land comes from established farmers or from pension funds and other outside investors that are familiar with agriculture.
"You can't beat having families expanding farming operations," Menezes said. "That's the lifeblood of our economy here."
Some land remains dirt cheap. Nonirrigated grazing land in Merced County, for example, cost as little as $500 per acre in 2005 and last year.
Rabobank noted the continuing tough times for dairy farmers, who face milk prices that often fall short of feed and other costs.
Orvis said high land values for various crops help farmers obtain loans, but they can be a barrier to someone trying to enter agriculture. He noted that production costs consume much of the gross income each year.
The Rabobank report said California's outlook could change if the dollar strengthens against other currencies, making U.S. exports more expensive, or if increased interest rates make land purchases harder. It also warns of drought.
Overall, however, it's not a bad time to farm.
"California's crop diversity and profitability continue to shield any major overall downturns in land values for the state," said Vernon Crowder, a senior vice president and agricultural economist with the bank.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2385.
(Per-acre sale prices in Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties, unless otherwise noted)
Almonds: $12,000 to $24,000 in 2011, compared with $8,000 to $25,000 in 2005
Walnuts: $14,000 to $25,000 in 2011, $9,000 to $17,000 in 2005
Cling peaches, Stanislaus County: $15,000 to $20,000 in 2011, $7,000 to $14,000 in 2005
Cherries, San Joaquin County: $25,000 to $35,000 in 2011, $13,000 to $18,000 in 2005
Field crops, Merced Irrigation District: $8,000 to $15,000 in 2011, $8,000 to $20,000 in 2005
Field crops, Merced County groundwater: $5,000 to $10,000 in 2011, $4,500 to $9,250 in 2005
Dairy farms: $500 to $2,500 per milk cow in 2011, $2,000 to $3,000 in 2005
Source: American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers