Pistachio harvest
Kern County leads California in the production of pistachios, and because of that now leads the state in gross agricultural value at over $7.1 billion.

Pistachios push Kern County crop values to No. 1

Pistachios and cherries credited with pushing Kern County crop values to tops in the state

A record pistachio crop and a general downturn across much of the rest of California’s agriculture sector gave Kern County the push it needed to crack the top-spot among farm counties in the United States in 2016.

In short: Kern County is now No. 1.

In order, the top three are:

  • Kern County: $7,187,944,340 (up 6 percent)
  • Tulare County: $6,370,212,600 (down 8 percent)
  • Fresno County: $6,183,960,100 (down 7 percent)

Though these figures can sometimes become bragging rights for local officials – and certainly Kern will have them as this has never happened before – the real story isn’t in the total figure as much as it is in the trends reflective among California agriculture.

Of the San Joaquin Valley counties reporting so far this year; only Kern is higher. The remainders are down as much as 14 percent, as was the case in San Joaquin County, due to generally softer commodity prices.

New leader

Kern County Agricultural Commissioner Glenn Fankhauser credited more than pistachios for the positive year in his county, though he admits that had pistachios and cherries not seen the success they did, his gross value could have been significantly different and may not have pushed his county into the top spot.

Cherry yields per acre were up 250 percent on total acreage that fell 11 percent in 2016. The total crop saw a three-fold increase over last year’s production to nearly 28,000 tons.

Kern’s rise to first place comes as the San Joaquin Valley’s southernmost county also leads the state in pistachio and almond production. About 40 percent of the state’s pistachio crop and 20 percent of America’s almond production happens in the county. This compares to 23 and 20 percent, respectively, in Fresno County, and 13 and 3 percent, respectively, in Tulare County.

Grapes and almonds, Kern’s top-two commodities, are each valued at over $1 billion. Citrus is a close third at well over $800 million in gross value.

Pistachio yields in Kern were up 350 percent per acre in 2016 as poor weather the previous year led to a crop failure across the state.

Growers harvested an average of 3,240 pounds per acre in 2016, compared to 720 pounds the year before.

This pushed the county’s total pistachio production to over 178,000 tons for a gross value of over $769 million.

Total almond production was up 31 percent on 7,000 more acres (217,000 total bearing acres). Kern County growers harvested 518 million pounds of almonds.

Per-acre yields rose 26 percent as prices were off 33 percent to the grower, putting the total value of Kern County’s almond production at nearly $1.3 billion.

Citrus acreage was off 3,000 as per-acre yields fell over 4 percent, dragging total production down by 9 percent and overall value down 11 percent to $824 million.

Blueberries had a positive year in Kern County as growers boosted acreage by 29 percent and saw their price climb 17 percent.

Per-acre blueberry yields were up 25 percent, which boosted total production over 61 percent. This helped move the commodity into the top-20 list with a value of nearly 33 million.

Tulare County

Tulare is still first by far in terms of milk production, producing almost as much milk by itself as states dairy like Idaho and New York.

Tulare County Agricultural Commissioner Marilyn Kinoshita says Tulare’s dairy prominence remains relatively even as the number of dairies fell in 2016 – down to 269 from 285 dairies.

Not all of those losses resulted in net cow losses as some of those dairy losses consolidated cows into other herds within the county. Still, milk production in the county remained relatively stable at over 11 billion pounds, or about one-third of the state’s total milk output.

Kinoshita points to a change in the county’s milk herd. Whereas 90 percent of the herd was Holstein cows just a few years ago, now just 75 percent of its milk herd are the larger black and white animals as Jersey cows, a breed known for its higher milk fat content, are becoming more popular because that milk fat can translate into better returns to the dairyman.

Aside from milk, Tulare leads the state in citrus production with more than 124,000 acres across varieties including oranges, lemons, grapefruit and mandarins, nearly double the total citrus acreage Kern produces. Fresno County has about 50,000 acres of citrus. Navel oranges make up the largest block of citrus acreage in the three counties, totaling more than 177,000 acres.

At just over $600 million, grapes remain the third-most valuable crop produced in Tulare County.

Table variety acreage grew by 5,600 to 35,600 as wine varieties grew in favor by more than 1,000 acres on the year.

Fresno County

Fresno’s slide began a few years ago as drought claimed significant portions of irrigated farmland along the county’s west side. Today the county is down 12 percent in total irrigated land to about 973,000 acres since the drought began in 2012.

Much of that farmland formerly grew vegetables in the transition period between summer production in the Salinas Valley and winter production in the southern California and Arizona desert region.

As with the other counties, Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner Les Wright says the real value among the counties is in the details.

At about 400 different commodities, Fresno is perhaps the most diverse of the counties when it comes to the number of crops produced, though that diversity is shrinking due to declines in irrigated acreage along the west side of the county.

In raw numbers Fresno County farmers and ranchers received $885 million fewer dollars in 2016 than they did in 2014.

“That’s not an insignificant number,” Wright says.

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.

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.

On a positive note Wright expects 2016 to be a transition year for the agricultural economy in Fresno County and thinks values may turn the corner if things like water allocations can hold out and grower prices rebound.

Three categories in Fresno’s 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.

Almonds, grapes and poultry products (in that order) remain the top three commodities produced in Fresno County, though it’s not always been that way. Grapes held that 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 that saw growers replacing their vineyards with almond orchards.

This is the fourth consecutive year that 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.

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 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.

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.

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