Central Valley: Permanent crops, dairy increase; major cotton reduction

Commodity prices, water, and other factors continue to shift crop production acreage in California’s Central Valley in favor of more permanent crops and dairy ground.

Acreage increases in pistachios, almonds, and dairy led the pack from 1997 to 2008. The largest decrease was cotton which lost a staggering 75 percent in acreage; from about 1,000,000 acres in 1997 to about 250,000 acres in 2008.

Three UC Cooperative Extension agronomy farm advisors reviewed a decade of information to evaluate the changing landscape of agronomic crops in Central Valley irrigated agriculture.

Doug Munier, Glenn County; Steve Orloff, Siskiyou County; and Steve Wright, Tulare County, compiled information from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, California chapter of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers, California Almond Board, and the California Milk Advisory Board.

The evaluated crops included corn, rice, wheat, cotton, alfalfa, dairy, almonds, pistachios, and grapes.

Pistachio acreage doubled from about 64,000 acres in 1997 to about 110,000 acres in 2006 amid higher pistachio prices. New almond acreage increased about 50 percent; from about 500,000 acres to about 750,000 acres. Almond prices doubled over historical levels with the largest increases in 2005 and 2006.

Walnut acreage increased slightly over the decade from about 200,000 acres to about 220,000 acres. Walnut prices have risen steadily over the last few years from about $1,500 per ton in 1997 to about $2,400 per ton in 2007.

Wheat acreage for grain and green-chop feed for dairy animals increased from about 600,000 acres in 1997 to about 800,000 acres in 2007. Despite the 200,000-acre increase, harvested acreage in 2007 stood at less than 600,000 acres.

“The harvested acres don’t keep track with planted acres because wheat is often green-chopped for livestock feed,” Munier said.

Wheat for green chop peaked in 2003 at about 350,000 acres and then slowly declined to about 270,000 acres when skyrocketing wheat prices encouraged growers to harvest more wheat for grain. Prices increased about 100 percent from the $100 per ton range which Munier says barely covers production costs up to $200 per ton.

“This partly explains the 200,000-acre increase in wheat,” Munier said. “Wheat also requires less water than cotton, corn, and alfalfa which makes wheat more economical to grow during drought years.”

California milk production increased from 27 billion to 28 billion pounds annually in 1997 to more than 40 billion pounds in 2007.

“That’s an incredible volume of milk,” Munier said. “California dairy cows produce enough milk annually where every person in the world could drink several pints of milk.” Milk prices fluctuated over the 10-year period.

Munier says the substantial acreage loss in cotton is linked to constant prices in the 60 to 70 cent per pound range for the short-staple Acala variety. Some farmers facing water restrictions in the current severe drought have switched from cotton to less water-demanding permanent and field crops.

Cotton is the most complicated and most expensive field crop to grow of the major field crops grown in California, Munier says. Despite those issues, he believes cotton still has a future in the Central Valley.

“60 to 70 cents a pound is right around the cost of production if you’re a good producer,” Munier said. “The economics of cotton prices is certainly an overriding influence despite the technological improvements in cotton production.”

GPS-guided tractors have improved production efficiencies in many field crops including cotton. One modern-day cotton picker, with its hundreds of spindles, replaces about 500 people hand-picking cotton in the field. Herbicide tolerant cotton offers phenomenal weed control, Munier says.

The on-farm module-building system developed in the 1970s allows cotton pickers to keep rolling in the field. Before modules, cotton wagons waited in line at the gin to unload while the picker sat idle waiting for the empty wagons to return.

Statewide alfalfa acres remained steady during the decade at about one million acres. Yields have “bounced” around seven tons per acre while prices have increased substantially; about $120 per ton in 1997 to about $170 per ton in 2007. Record high alfalfa hay prices were seen in 2008 ($250 per ton range), but current prices show the greatest single-year price decrease ($150-$160 per ton range).

Corn acreage, primarily planted to produce silage for livestock, has remained steady in the 600,000-acre range. Rice acreage continues to hover around 500,000 acres amid higher prices. Most rice ground is not suited for growing other crops. Grape acreage has remained firm over the decade.

Irrigated field crop land values in Kern County more than doubled in the decade; from about $3,800 per acre in 2000 to $8,000 per acre in 2006, Munier says.

Stanislaus County field crop land values increased from $6,000 per acre in 2001 to $11,000 per acre in 2006. Prices in the northern Sacramento Valley climbed from $2,600 per acre in 2000 to about $5,000 per acre in 2006.

“These different factors have produced tremendous changes in the field crops landscape across California over a very short period of time,” Munier said.

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