April 2005 Volume 11 Number 2
California Ag History
Modern California agriculture began in 1769 when Spanish missionaries began to produce food around the missions they established, and expanded significantly after gold was discovered and miners created markers for food. A new review of the state's farm sector foresees challenges, including more costly water, capital and labor, but expects California agriculture to adapt and thrive.
The defining feature of California agriculture is that, for most of the past 150 years, farmers have responded to demand rather than supply signals. In family farm Midwestern agriculture, by contrast, supply-driven expansion was made possible by biological and mechanical improvements that permitted farmers to grow a surplus they could sell. California farmers have always produced commodities for distant consumers.
The major changes in California agriculture over the past half century are the rise of fruit and nut, vegetable and melon, and horticultural specialty crops at the expense of field crops such as cotton and the shift within livestock from meat to dairy products. In 2000, FVH crops accounted for over 90 percent of the value of the state's crop sales, and dairy products for over 60 percent of the state's livestock sales. Crops have accounted for about three-fourths of California farm sales for the past 25 years.
The hallmark of California agriculture is its production of over 350 commodities. The state dominates US and sometimes global production of many commodities, including almonds (California produces 80 percent of world supply), and producers thus face price fluctuations in response to weather and other supply-side developments as well as economic growth and currency fluctuations that affect demand for their crops. As a result, California producers tend to be larger and better capitalized to withstand such market fluctuations.