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October 2012, Volume 18, Number 4

California: Sales 2011, Commodities, Water

California farm sales were $43.5 billion in 2011, up from $38 billion in 2010 and $34 billion in 2009. The leading commodity was milk, worth $7.7 billion (up from $6 billion in 2010). There were 11 commodities with farm sales of over $1 billion in 2011.

Within crops, so-called FVH commodities, fruits and nuts (worth $13.5 billion in 2010), vegetables and melons ($6.9 billion), and horticultural specialties such as flowers and nursery products ($3.8 billion) generated almost 90 percent of California's crop sales of $27.7 billion and two-thirds of total farm sales in 2010. The 8,600 California farms with $500,000 or more in sales accounted for 90 percent of the state's farm sales.

USDA reported that the average value of irrigated crop land was $12,000 an acre in 2012, a record high. The average annual rent on irrigated crop land was $340 an acre.

California counties released 2011 crop reports in summer 2012. Tulare county reported $5.6 billion in farm sales, and Madera, San Joaquin and Kings counties had record farm sales. Monterey county had farm sales of $3.8 billion, and lettuce worth $775 million surpassed strawberries, worth $715 million, as the leading crop.

Commodities. California's 780,000 acres of almonds produced a record two billion pounds of almonds in 2012.

California expects one million tons of table grapes, 1.9 million tons of raisin-type green grapes, and 3.7 million tons of wine grapes in 2012. About two-thirds of California's wine grapes are produced in the San Joaquin Valley, but their lower prices mean that San Joaquin Valley wine grapes account for only a third of the farm value of wine grapes.

California ships about 100 million 19-pound boxes of table grapes a year, up from 20 million boxes in the early 1970s. There are about 90,000 bearing acres of table grapes, and 40 percent of US table grapes are exported.

The raisin crop is expected to be 285,000 tons in 2012, down from 346,000 tons in 2011. Growers are expected to receive $1,900 a ton, up from $1,700 in 2011. Some raisin growers reported that piece rates for picking rose from $0.25-$0.27 a 20-pound tray in 2011 to $0.30 a tray in 2012. Some raisin grapes are being sold to wineries, which are offering $325 a ton for green raisin-type grapes in 2012.

Rising feed costs and falling milk prices are reducing the number of dairies to less than 1,800. Feed represents 55 to 60 percent of the cost of producing milk in California, double the cost of purchased feed for Midwest dairies. The House version of the farm bill would replace dairy subsidies with a voluntary insurance plan that would pay farmers enough to maintain a profit margin when milk prices drop; participating farmers would also have to reduce milk production when milk prices drop. The House bill would trigger subsidies when milk prices fall below $16.94 per 100 pounds, or about $1.45 a gallon.

California has almost 40,000 acres of strawberries, and they produced 1.3 million tons worth $1.8 billion in 2011. There are three major varieties: Driscoll-developed varieties, UC varieties and Well-Pict varieties. Strawberry production in coastal areas normally requires about two acre feet of water per acre of strawberries.

California strawberry acreage almost doubled from 20,000 acres in 1990 to 38,600 acres in 2011, average yields rose almost 50 percent, and average grower prices rose from about 40 cents to almost 70 cents a pound. California produces over 90 percent of US fresh strawberries, and there is little competition from imports in fresh berries. However, average hourly earnings in berries are near the bottom of the farm wage scale despite production being concentrated in high-cost-of-living coastal areas. In 2010, average hourly earnings were $10 an hour in berries, less than the $10.50 average of FLC employees.

Many employers and workers describe the strawberry labor market as "fluid." Most growers pay similar piece rates of $1.65 to $1.75 for picking a tray with eight one-pound containers. Workers look for "good farmers," that is, fields that have more strawberries so that they can maximize piece-rate earnings. Many workers carpool with friends and relatives, so that a group of four or five workers may include one or two who cannot earn the $8 minimum wage at prevailing piece rates but who are kept on the payroll in order to employ the fast pickers in the group.

There is interest in labor-saving mechanization. Juan Bravo's Agrobot has 10 mechanical arms to pick strawberries. For the Agrobot to harvest efficiently, berries must be trained to grow over the sides of single rows that have firm sides, not the usual two rows of berries with sloping sides that are used for hand-harvested berries. The Agrobot does not do well with Albion berries because they tend to grow in clusters.

Two-thirds of strawberry growers are Latinos, including many ex-pickers. Most are proud to tell the story of how they climbed the agricultural ladder from worker to owner, but some complain of being essentially sharecroppers bound to the marketing companies that provide them with plants, sell their berries and send them a check for their net earnings. Before World War II, Japanese immigrants grew more than 90 percent of California's strawberries. A combination of plant and soil diseases and the internment of Japanese during WWII took many out of the industry. When the industry rebounded in the 1950s, many of the hired workers were Braceros.

Harry Singh & Sons, one of the largest US suppliers of vine-ripened tomatoes, which stopped growing tomatoes in April 2011, announced plans to resume tomato production in 2012-13 with the backing of Victoria, British Columbia-based Oppenheimer Group. Singh's West Coast Tomato Growers will have 450 acres in the Bonsall area.

The Singhs grew vine-ripened tomatoes on more than 925 acres, including 350 acres on the Camp Pendleton Marine Base, shipping up to 4.5 million cartons weighing 22 to 26 pounds each via Oceanside Pole Tomato Sales.

Water. The federal and state governments on July 25, 2012 unveiled plans for a $23 billion system of two peripheral tunnel that would move water 35 miles around the 500,000-acre Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta. Water users would pay the $14 billion in construction costs and the $5 billion in operating costs, while the state would provide $4 billion for habitat restoration.

The delta, where fresh river water meets salt water from the San Francisco Bay, has recorded declining counts of fish. There is widespread agreement that the status quo is not sustainable, but little agreement on how to move forward. If the summer 2012 plan moves quickly, it could be moving water from northern to southern California by 2025.

Cadiz, a land company that once owned Sun World, wants to sell the underground water to urban water districts under its 34,000 acres of land in the Mojave Desert, 200 miles east of Los Angeles. In 2002 the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California rejected a plan by Cadiz to pump water from the Colorado river in wet years, store it under 55-square miles of Cadiz-owned land in the Mojave Desert, and sell the stored water to the MWD in dry years.

Cadiz in 2012 proposed to sell the groundwater under its land for $1 billion to $2 billion. However, Cadiz groundwater contains large quantities of hexavalent chromium (chromium 6), a carcinogen, making the MWD reluctant to allow Cadiz to use the 242-mile-long Colorado River Aqueduct to send its water further west to Los Angeles. Cadiz, which loses money on its desert farming operations, hopes to gain revenue from selling water to the Santa Margarita Water District in Orange county. There are at least five suits pending against the Cadiz water-mining project.

The Salton Sea, five miles long, 15 miles wide and 227 feet below sea level, was created in 1905 when the Colorado River jumped its banks during a rainy season and gushed northward for months, filling an ancient salt sink. The water, run off from agricultural irrigation from the Imperial Valley to the south, is 50 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean.

In summer 2012, Riverside county supported the application of Milwaukee-based Federated Insurance to build the planned 40,000 resident city of Travertine Point despite the fact that the Salton Sea is shrinking as more of Imperial Valley's water goes to San Diego. The only fish in the Salton Sea are tilapia, which normally live in fresh water.

MOCA. The UC Ag Issues Center issued a revised Measure of California Agriculture in July 2012. The MOCA estimated a 2.2 jobs multiplier, that is, each job in farm production and related nonfarm processing was associated with 2.2 California and US jobs. Statewide, the MOCA estimated that farming and related nonfarm processing accounted for almost seven percent of the state's private sector jobs.