Prior to 2013, it was rare for Fresno County, Calif. not to be the top agricultural producer in the United States.
Then the drought appeared. It hasn’t been No. 1 since.
When Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner Les Wright released his annual crop and livestock report to county supervisors in early August. his somber tone seemed to match the 6.5 percent decline in the gross value of crops produced in the county.
The top number for 2015 – the gross value of the nearly 400 crops produced in the Central Valley county – came in at just over $6.6 billion, more than $433 million below the county’s all-time record reported in 2014.
Wright makes no secret of it: The decline in the county’s gross agricultural output is largely due to the lack of surface water deliveries growers suffered through during the past several years.
While he doesn’t hang his hat solely on the loss of irrigation water, Wright continues to point to reduced water supplies as one of the main contributors to fewer planted acres in Fresno County over the past few years.
Wright does not have an accurate tally of fallowed acres or a total acreage count of productive farmland in the county as those numbers are difficult to record as growers make decisions one year to the next on what they will plant.
Fresno County Farm Bureau Chief Executive Officer Ryan Jacobsen says his organization does not have an accounting of unplanted acres, much less total farmable acres in the county. That figure could be publicly forthcoming as County Supervisor Andreas Borgeas asked Wright during his presentation for those figures.
Other factors in the lower crop value in 2015, according to Wright, include yield losses in some crops, individual crop values that declined when compared to the previous year, and fewer export opportunities due to world market challenges and a strong dollar relative to other currency that made buying U.S. commodities more difficult for foreign customers.
Almonds and grapes maintained their hold as the top two commodities produced in the county, though in both cases total value was off slightly. As a category, fruits and nuts account for about half of the county’s total agricultural value.
Vegetable production represents about one-fifth of the county’s crop value.
For almonds, 2015 marks the third consecutive year that the gross value of nuts at the farm level sold for over $1 billion. In 2015, growers sold their crop for $1.2 billion.
Broken down, this includes the nearly $34 million paid by dairy producers for 348,000 tons of almond hulls.
The price of hulls into the livestock market fell over 40 percent to about $97 per ton. This price continues to fall into 2016, according to Michael Kelley, president of Central California Almond Growers Association.
Kelley said he recently sold a load of old-crop hulls for just over $50 per ton.
Almond acreage continues to increase in the county, now up to over 186,000 bearing acres, 9 percent higher than the previous year.
Almond prices and yield-per-acre was off 7 percent in 2015 as total yield grew 1 percent on the new bearing acreage.
Another bright spot in the fruit and nut category is mandarins which appeared for the first-time ever in Fresno County’s Top 10.
Though revised mandarin acreage totals from 2014 showed acreage to be statistically unchanged – 14,489 acres of mandarins in 2014 vs. 14,472 in 2015 – the grower price of fresh mandarins nearly doubled to $1,184 per ton on a crop that yielded 166,000 tons of the easy-peel citrus fruit.
Mandarins climbed to No. 9 in total value, one position above oranges, which moved up a slot from the previous year.
Pistachios fall from Top 10
All that movement into the Top 10 meant something had to fall out, and in 2015 that was pistachios, which rose to the No. 7 position in 2014. Pistachio growers in 2015 suffered what some likened to a “crop failure” as poor winter weather the year before and lack of irrigation water for many growers caused production to fall significantly.
For Fresno County pistachio growers, this meant 61 percent fewer nuts were harvested from bearing acreage that was 37.5 percent higher than the previous year. Average yields were down from about 2,100 pounds per acre to about 600 pounds. This and a 12 percent lower grower price drug down the total value of pistachios in the county to under $130 million.
Total pistachio crop value the previous year was over $378 million.
Rounding out the three nut crop categories, walnuts had a good year in terms of production, but a less-than-stellar one in terms of price.
Bearing acreage increased slightly to just over 8,700 as average yields were 3,260 pounds per acre, compared to 3,100 the previous year. This helped contribute to the state’s record high crop for the year.
Grower prices for walnuts were almost halved, down to just over $1,600 per ton.
In other fruit and nut categories:
- Navel orange production totaled 392,000 tons, down from 424,000 tons. Grower prices were off slightly;
- Valencia orange production and acreage was little-changed from the previous year on slightly stronger pricing. Overall orange production was up a few hundred pounds from the previous year;
- Grape acreage fell 4 percent to just over 195,000. Table varieties were unchanged in acreage and yields from the previous year as wine varieties improved and raisin production declined; and
- Kiwifruit production nearly doubled to 4,100 tons in total as unit costs to growers improved as well.
Field crops were down nearly 42 percent in total revenue. Notable declines included:
- Cotton acreage fell to its lowest level since the Great Depression. This pulled $47 million from the previous year’s total value as acreage fell by more than 7,000 acres. Upland/Acala lint prices gained a few cents to 92 cents on average as production in that category grew almost 10 percent to 23,400 bales;
- Pima cotton acreage was down more than 7,000 as was the overall bale count – down 31,000 bales to 99,000 bales of ELS cotton. The average ELS cotton price fell 22.5 percent to $1.24 per pound;
- Alfalfa production was off 13 percent to 294,000 tons on total acreage that was down 16 percent; and,
- Production of over 3,000 more acres of wheat was erased by yields that were about half what they were the previous year. Less than 20,000 tons of wheat was harvested, compared to just over 37,000 the year before.
Vegetables were a mixed bag for growers as the overall value grew slightly to just over $1.25 billion. This was seen on:
- Eggplant acreage nearly doubled to 1,050 as yield increased 52 percent. Prices were up almost 9 percent to the grower;
- Spring head lettuce was down 9.3 percent as harvested acres decreased;
- Fall head lettuce increased by over 25 percent, mostly due to a $177 per ton increase in price;
- Sweet corn acreage (human consumption) fell significantly as did the price – down $120 per ton from the previous year;
- Melons mostly had a good year as grower prices improved for cantaloupe, honeydew and mixed melons. Honeydews saw the largest gain in total yield, up 61 percent to 122,000 tons;
- Watermelon prices were down 45 percent to the grower; and
- Processing tomatoes saw acreage and overall production gains as grower prices fell $3 to an average of $82 per ton.
After a year that saw milk prices soar to never-before-seen levels exceeding $23 per hundredweight (cwt), dairy producers saw their average price in 2015 fall back to the $15-$17 per cwt. range. Total milk production was down 2.4 percent. This removed $200 million from the county’s overall milk value in 2015.
The Fresno County Crop and Livestock report can be accessed online at http://tinyurl.com/jhl4p3qjhl4p3q