California Gov Jerry Brown at the World Ag Expo in Tulare Calif

Higher Ag values can mask industry challenges

Now that Fresno County’s crop report is in we know the pecking order of the top four California Ag counties.

In order they are: Tulare ($8 billion), Kern ($7.5 billion), Fresno ($7 billion), Monterey ($4.5 billion).

Do the math: that’s $27 billion.

Not all of California’s counties have reported their 2014 crop values, so it’ll be a few months before we know how close to $50 billion California’s agricultural output truly is. California’s gross Ag value in 2013 was $46.4 billion.

Let’s step away from gross dollar amounts for a moment because they can mask the serious issues we have today.

One grower candidly shared with his sealed-bid price for surface water earlier in the season: $3,500 per acre foot. It was not the high bid.

Fresno County Farm Bureau Chief Executive Ryan Jacobsen was surprised at Fresno County’s $7 billion figure, believing (as I did) that it would be lower than since more than 20 percent of Fresno County’s 970,000 acres of irrigated farmland lay fallow – a result of water curtailments and well water availability.

Over the past several years, the Westlands Water District has purchased land for the simple purpose of retiring it – not letting it be used to grow crops in an attempt to provid enough water for crops that can be grown there.

Meanwhile, farmers on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley, who thought they were immune to federal water woes encountered by Westlands over the past decade, discovered the hard way in 2014 that they too could be curtailed. This spread Fresno County’s agricultural pain rather effectively from west to east as well failures multiplied to the thousands.

Fast-forward to the August crop report presentation by Ag Commissioner Les Wright where county supervisors wanted to know how Fresno County could fall from No. 1 to No. 3 in total Ag value in two years. Wright’s one-word answer was obvious to anyone paying attention: “water.”

In conversations with Wright and Jacobsen, both seem to believe that if San Joaquin Valley growers had 100 percent surface water allocations and agriculture was allowed to grow what the markets demand, Fresno County could have a gross agricultural value much closer to $10 billion by now.

Flow that logic through the other Ag counties in California and it’s highly likely that the state’s gross agricultural output today could easily exceed $50 billion.

Multiply that by three times as the Ag economists at the University of California suggest is agriculture’s economic impacts and you begin to see just how important this one segment of the state’s economy is.

All of this is a moot point without water, something California Gov. Jerry Brown seems to think farmers don’t need.

What other conclusion is there to draw from the governor who thinks groundwater management is “not aggressive enough” while he continues to oppose construction of new dams and reservoirs, which agriculture has long-argued reduces the pressure on aquifers and makes higher-quality water more available to farms and the environment.

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