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California’s Crop Land

February 24, 2020

Only eight percent of California’s almost 100 million acres of land are used to produce most of the state’s crop output. A quarter of California’s acres are used for farming, but half of these 24 million farm acres are pasture and rangeland, and another 2.2 million acres are woodland, farmsteads, ponds, and roads.

Most of California’s crops are from eight million irrigated acres.

The major change in crop land use over the past two decades is the switch from annual field crops to perennial fruits, vines, and nuts. California’s vegetable acreage has been stable at 1.5 million acres over the past two decades, while the acreage of nuts more than doubled to two million acres, occupying a quarter of the state’s irrigated crop land. The acreage of tree fruits declined, while the acreage of berries rose to almost 53,000, including 70 percent strawberries.

Within vegetables, lettuce increased by 23,000 acres between 1997 and 2017, but head lettuce acreage declined while Romaine and leaf lettuce acreage rose. Tomato acreage declined, broccoli acreage increased, and carrot and garlic acreage was stable.

The largest growth was in the acreage of nuts, almonds, walnuts, and pistachios. The acreage of almonds doubled in the past two decades, and almonds now account for almost two-thirds of the state’s nut acreage.

Tree fruit acreage generally declined over the past two decades, with non-citrus acreage falling from almost 600,000 acres in 1997 to 365,000 acres in 2017, led by a drop of over 92,000 acres of plums and prunes, a decrease of 36,000 acres of apples, and a decrease of 35,000 acres of peaches. Sweet cherry acreage more than doubled to 37,000 acres between 1997 and 2017, and date acreage more than doubled to 11,400 acres.

Grape acreage rose from 850,000 acres in 1997 to 935,000 acres in 2017, when wine grapes were two-thirds of the state’s grape acreage, raisin grapes 20 percent, and table grapes 13 percent. The acreage of citrus fruit was relatively stable at 315,000 acres, as rising mandarin acreage offset declining Valencia acreage.

California’s acreage of fruits, nuts, and vegetables increased from 4.2 million to 5.1 million between 1997 and 2017, and there was an offsetting decline in field crop acreage, from 4.7 million acres to 2.7 million acres. The acreage of hay was relatively stable at 1.3 million acres in 2017, but grain crops fell from over 900,000 acres in 1997 to 150,000 in 2017. Similarly, cotton acreage fell from a million to 300,000 acres over the past two decades.

Almost half of the state’s irrigated crop land has perennial trees and vines. Orchards and vineyards have economic lifespans of two decades or more, hardening the demand for water. Unlike vegetable or field crops that are planted every year and, if not planted, do not need water, perennial trees and vines need water each year.

Carman, Hoy. 2019. California’s Changing Land Use Patterns for Crop Production, 1959–­2017. ARE Update.

California’s irrigated acreage has been stable at 8 million acres

California Land, Cropland and Irrigated Land in Farms by Major Crops, 1959–2017
  Census Year
  1959 1969 1978 1987 1997 2007 2017
Acres
Land in Farms 36,887,948 35,722,348 33,130,362 30,598,178 28,795,834 25,364,695 24,522,801
Total Cropland 12,965,640 11,245,140 11,721,056 10,894,503 11,062,811 9,464,647 9,597,439
Harvested Cropland 8,021,836 7,649,021 8,899,360 7,676,287 8,676,242 7,633,173 7,857,512
Irrigated Land 7,395,570 7,240,131 8,603,719 7,596,091 8,886,693 8,016,159 7,833,593
Specialty Crops
Vegetables 814,322 849,349 1,168,847 1,102,167 1,536,484 1,504,919 1,423,840
Non-Citrus Fruits 472,528 497,320 486,233 538,191 597,339 444,664 365,156
Grapes 469,234 458,261 644,302 707,748 870,527 868,330 935,272
Citrus Fruits 242,475 266,141 248,632 268,836 315,758 303,101 312,162
Nuts 250,571 365,978 540,710 637,889 869,369 1,210,203 2,023,746
Berries 14,271 10,530 14,204 16,600 31,356 42,081 52,930
Total Specialty Crop 2,263,401 2,447,579 3,102,928 3,271,431 4,220,833 4,373,298 5,113,106
Specialty Share of Irrigated Land 30.60% 33.81% 36.06% 43.07% 47.50% 54.56% 65.27%
Field Crops
Rice NA NA 485,416 399,193 514,081 531,075 436,710
Cotton 820,724 659,904 1,520,708 1,083,811 1,036,316 471,378 301,665
Hay, haylage, silage 1,369,343 1,286,866 1,204,421 1,279,364 1,465,504 1,554,197 1,344,102
Irrigated Pasture NA NA 868,768 631,991 733,506 741,911 484,903
Grain & Other 2,942,102 2,845,782 1,421,478 930,301 916,453 344,300 153,107
Total Field Crops 5,132,169 4,792,552 5,500,791 4,324,660 4,665,860 3,642,861 2,720,487
Source: USDA Census of Agriculture, various years

Most of California’s irrigated crop land (red) is in the San Joaquin Valley

Texas has five times more farmland than California

Across the US, more farmland is devoted to pasture than to cropland