I heard it again and again Tuesday as Stanislaus County leaders looked over last year’s farm output: This is just gross.
No, they weren’t turning up their noses at the milk, nuts, fruit and other food produced within our boundaries. They were reminding us that the report’s most prominent figure – a record $4.4 billion in total sales by farmers and ranchers – referred only to gross income.
The figure does not include the cost of producing the bounty: tractors, fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, labor, water and perhaps payments on the farm mortgage. Expenses were especially high in 2014 because of the drought, which raised water costs for most farmers and feed bills for dairy and beef producers.
This does not mean that farming does not turn a profit. It generally does, except perhaps for dairy farmers dealing this year with another drop in milk prices. But those comments Tuesday on the 2014 crop report – some of them from county supervisors who also are farmers – are worth keeping in mind as we celebrate the record gross income.
Much of the gain came from increased prices for almonds. California grows about 80 percent of the world supply, and it has done a great job marketing the nuts as a healthy food, but volume has tapered off with the drought.
High milk prices last year played a part as well, but as I mentioned, they slid again in 2015. Beef prices also soared last year, but ranchers paid dearly for hay to supplement the parched rangeland.
I look forward to the release of the crop report every year, and not just to see how the top commodities are doing. I like checking in on peaches and apricots, which are much reduced from their heyday in California but still employ a few thousand people at Modesto-area canneries each summer. It’s nice to read that canning tomatoes are going strong, thanks in part to our appetite for ketchup, salsa and pasta sauce.
The report reminds me of fascinating places I have visited as The Modesto Bee’s agriculture reporter. Take silage, a dairy feed worth $206 million in 2014. It is made by chopping whole cornstalks or other grain crops and letting them ferment for a few weeks under those massive tarps you see out in the countryside.
I have toured Squab Producers of California, a plant off Crows Landing Road that is the nation’s largest supplier of these young pigeons. They brought just $2.4 million – 1 percent of the chicken income in the county – but fine chefs love them.
I have not seen a partridge farm, but the report says they are produced here, at a value too small to list. We also have a small number of pear trees, in case you were wondering.
The crop report is a great read if you’re curious about what’s coming off our agricultural land, whether it’s cantaloupes or Christmas trees, wine grapes or chicken eggs. And speaking of gross income, manure sales totaled $3.2 million last year.