August 16, 2014

Our View: A record year for Stanislaus County agriculture

The 2013 Stanislaus County Crop Report: By any measure, it was outstanding; breathtaking, even, reflecting, as it did, rising farm income even in the midst of a three-year drought.

One of the interesting personality traits most farmers share is that they can find a dark cloud in the middle of any silver lining. That’s probably because they spend so much time wishing for dark clouds.

And that brings us to the 2013 Stanislaus County Crop Report. By any measure, it was outstanding; breathtaking even, reflecting rising farm income even in the midst of a three-year drought.

Agriculture is the biggest industry in Stanislaus County, and last year it was bigger than ever. County ag commissioner Milton O’Haire reported that farms generated $3.663 billion – a 12 percent increase over 2012. We exported 133 commodities to 102 nations and every state in America. We are the world leader in almond production (at least for now).

The value of most of what is produced on our farms (even manure) went up, and some went through the roof.

Take almonds. The value of almond “meats” (the part you eat) was $1.125 billion. A bumper crop (194,000 tons) combined with record prices meant a 52 percent increase. But that didn’t count the value of hulls. With corn and hay prices going up, ranchers were feeding hulls to beef cattle, making hulls worth $56.5 million. Add the value of shells, and almond trees rained down $1,186,204,000 (we wanted to use all the numbers).

There was more to consider.

• Almond acreage went up 5,000 – a 3 percent increase from 2012. Almonds orchards now cover 16 percent of all Stanislaus County ag land, and most of the new orchards are outside irrigation districts, meaning they pump water. Meanwhile, total ag acreage decreased from 1 million acres in 2012 to 970,000 acres in 2013 – a 3 percent drop, but still well above the 818,000 acres farmed in 2003.
• Grapes lost 1,300 acres (about 9 percent), and the total value fell 24 percent (to $62 million). Considering the number of wineries in the area, seeing vineyards replaced by almond orchards is a little troubling. It takes more employees to get wine into bottles than to pasteurize, package and ship pallets of almonds.
• If the trend in vegetable farming continues, we’ll all have to plant our own gardens. Acreage devoted to broccoli, beans, tomatoes, sweet potatoes and melons, among other items, fell 28 percent even as the value was generally rising – especially for our old mainstay, tomatoes. Considering that our county fair was once called the “Melon Festival,” it’s surprising to see only 3,500 acres devoted to cantaloupes, honeydews and pumpkins.
• Dairy farmers made more money ($804 million) than ever before, yet their product fell from No. 1 on the list for the first time in 74 years.

Ag commissioner O’Haire estimated that all this agricultural bounty will result in $13 billion of economic activity by the time wages in canneries, wineries and milking parlors are paid out; by the time specialty nut-harvesting machines are made; by the time milk is turned into cheese or powdered, nuts are put into candy and can-makers have created millions of “brights.”

This report leaves little room for pessimism. But here are two things to consider:

Without water, everything evaporates. While Stanislaus County’s 735,000 acres of field and vegetable crops don’t have to be planted in a fourth or fifth year of drought, those 225,000 acres of trees will die. With them will go an enormous portion of our economy.

Finally, just as we were forced to survive a housing bubble back in 2006-07, it could be possible that we’re in a nut bubble. In the housing bubble, three-bedroom tract homes fetched $400,000 in 2007 then $150,000 in 2008. In the six months, we’ve seen the value of pasture land in an irrigation district rise from roughly $18,000 an acre to $27,500 because it can be converted into orchards.

With almonds expected to fetch $3.50 a pound and demand seemingly insatiable, it’s hard to muster much concern. But with more than 6 million almond trees planted in California last year, and at least that many more expected this year, we worry about sustainability. Is that a bubble or a dark cloud rising on the horizon?

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