Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner Les Wright Todd Fitchette
Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner Les Wright says his county's agricultural values have continued to decline over the past few years due in part to poor water availability and reduced commodity prices.

Drought, lower crop prices drop Fresno County's farm gate values

Crop report paints picture of multi-year declines across Fresno County agriculture

When it comes to farm-gate values, Fresno County used to lead the nation. This hasn’t been the case since 2012 for at least a couple reasons – the water supply being the primary factor.

The value of the nearly 400 different crops produced in Fresno County has continued to fall since it peaked at just over $7 billion in 2014. The 2016 figure of $6.18 billion released recently by County Agricultural Commissioner Les Wright was not only lower than the previous year’s figure by over 7.2 percent; it’s off more than 12.5 percent from its 2014 record.

In raw numbers, Fresno County farmers and ranchers received $885 million fewer dollars in 2016 than they did in 2014. According to Wright, that’s a lot of money to take from the local economy. These producers also had 10 percent fewer acres of land in 2016 for the production of food and fiber compared to 2012. In 2016, the county had nearly 973,000 acres of irrigated farmland, a reduction of 12 percent over the same period.

“The real value to Fresno County isn’t in the total number, but is found in the details,” Wright said.

Those details include the thousands of farm laborer and processing jobs agriculture provides to the local economy, plus the money paid for agricultural goods and services to sustain the multi-billion economic engine, he said.

Wright says those details are regularly poured over by financial institutions, real estate brokers and others, as land values and banking decisions can rest on the information contained in the annual report.

Each year Wright presents his report to county supervisors and they ask the same question: “Are we number one?”

“We’re probably third and if we get any higher than that it’ll be a pleasant surprise,” Wright told commissioners.

For Wright and others, this question is unknown because neither Tulare nor Kern County – the only others that could possibly have a gross agricultural value higher than Fresno – have yet to release their reports.

Wright largely blamed water availability and prices, along with general commodity prices, for the slump in the county’s overall farm value. At no time since at least 1997 has the farm gate value fallen as steep in Fresno County as it has since 2014.

On a positive note, Wright expects 2016 to be a transition year for Fresno's agricultural economy. He believes values may turn the corner if water allocations and grower prices rebound.

What remains to be seen for this year – which will be reflected in next year’s report – will be the impact the late federal water allocation had on grower planting decisions.

“This year’s Westside allocation came in too late for most growers,” Wright told the board.

Few gains – many losses

Only three categories in the crop report saw value increases in 2016: Nursery products, apiary and pollination services, and the industrial category (timber and other products). The major categories that include fruits and nuts, vegetable crops and seed crops all saw year-over-year declines in total value.

Nursery includes the production of rootstock, citrus budwood, bare root fruit trees, Christmas trees, transplants, turf, and ornamentals.

Significant to commercial growers in this category is the “other” section, which includes the rootstocks and transplants that farmer’s purchase. That category saw a 231-percent boost in value on 20 percent fewer acres of production.

Crop values

Almonds, grapes and poultry products (in this order) remain the top three commodities produced in the county though it’s not always been that way. Grapes held the spot as recently as 2012 with a value in excess of $1 billion. The value of grapes for 2016 fell to $715 million after several years of declines as growers replaced vineyards with almond orchards.

This is the fourth consecutive year almonds have been a billion-dollar crop for Fresno County farmers. They are also the single-largest export commodity from the county. Peaches and oranges are the second- and third-leading export commodities, respectively, from the county.

In 2016 the county shipped food and fiber to markets in 93 countries around the globe.

According to Wright, 68 commodities are produced in the county with a gross value beyond $1 million.

As almond acreage continues to climb statewide, bearing acreage in Fresno County was up 26,509 acres, or about 14 percent to 215,317 acres.

Per-acre yields were up 17 percent in 2016 to over 2,300 pounds on average as the county’s total production exceeded 500 million pounds, or about 25 percent of the state’s total production. Almond prices to the grower were down about 26 percent on the year. Almond hull prices were down nearly 35 percent over the same period.

Though total grape plantings continue to slip from their highs of a few years ago, growers harvested wine grapes from 25 percent more acres and table grapes from 68 percent more acres in 2016 as raisin grape acreage was down 33 percent on the year.

Assorted values

The popularity of pistachios pushed the crop back into the Top-10 after slipping to 12th place the previous year. The crop’s alternate-bearing nature has moved the nut in and out of the Top-10 over the past several years.

Production that in 2015 fell to an average of 600 pounds per acre due to a lack of winter chilling hours climbed to over 3,000 pounds per acre on average in a crop that is closing in on 100,000 bearing acres in Fresno County.

Cotton production rose in 2016 to over 48,000 acres and a total value of more than $103 million in the County. Most of the acreage was in extra-long staple Pima varieties as production in the category rose to 116,000 bales. Growers also produced 29,000 bales of Upland varieties.

Alfalfa hay production fell to 275,000 tons from over 36,000 acres on softer hay prices.

Fresno County produced 147,000 tons of garlic in 2016.

Processing tomato production was down 11 percent to just over 5 million tons from 7 percent fewer acres than the previous year. Grower prices were $10 per ton less in 2016.

The Fresno County Crop Report is available online.

TAGS: Water Planting
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