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July 2016, Volume 22, Number 3

California: Sales, Labor

California had a "normal" water year in 2010-11 and again in 2015-16. Droughts reduced the availability of water for the 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 crop years. However, farm sales climbed during the drought years, from $43 billion in 2011 to $47 billion in 2012 to $51 billion in 2013 and $54 billion in 2014. Sales in 2015 are expected to set another record.

The reason that farm sales rose even as the availability of water fell from the long-run average of 50 million acre-feet to a low of 31 million for the 2014 crop year was that farmers switched scarce and expensive water from low-value and water-intensive crops such as alfalfa to more valuable crops such as fruits, nuts and vegetables. About 500,000 acres were fallowed in 2014 and 2015, usually land that would normally be used to produce low-value field crops, and farmers pumped ground water to substitute for less surface water.

Monterey county, the nation's salad bowl, had farm sales of $4.5 billion in 2014, led by leaf lettuce worth $775 million, strawberries worth $709 million, and head lettuce worth $651 million. Vegetable crops were worth $3.1 billion and fruit crops $1 billion. A Farmworker Advisory Committee meets quarterly with the Ag Commissioner's office to discuss labor issues.

California is projected to have a record crop of table grapes in 2016, some 117 million 19-pound boxes worth almost $2 billion. The state has 100,000 acres of table grapes, and the Scarlet Royal and Autumn King varieties are replacing Thompson seedless, Crimson seedless and Red Globe varieties. Autumn King can generate 2,000 boxes an acre, compared with 1,000 boxes from an acre of Thompson seedless. A third of the state's table grapes are exported.

Labor. The most labor-intensive commodities harvested in California include strawberries, which involve at least 50,000 workers, followed by raisin and table grapes, 40,000; lettuce, 30,000; and all melons, 20,000. There are no firm estimates of workers by commodity because most crop workers are brought to farms by crop support services such as labor contractors, and the commodity in which contractor workers are employed is not recorded.

Almost 30 percent of the state's 170,000 acres of raisin grapes were harvested mechanically in 2015, including 20 percent that used continuous tray harvesting and 10 percent using the overhead-trellis system. Fiesta and Selma Peter were the varieties most likely to be harvested mechanically.

California's almond acreage doubled since the mid-1990s to 1.1 million acres, including 900,000 bearing acres; a record two billion pounds are expected in 2016. Almost all of the growth in almond acreage has been in the Central Valley, and almonds occupy a seventh of the state's irrigated crop land. Some farmers replaced labor-intensive tree fruits with almonds.

California's walnut acreage was 365,000 in 2015, including 300,000 bearing acres, including a third of the Chandler variety.

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