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October 2016, Volume 22, Number 4

California Agriculture

Fresno was the leading US farm county until 2013, when the drought reduced irrigation water available to large farmers on the western side of the county. Fresno's farm sales for 2015 were $6.6 billion, down from $7 billion in 2014, and led by $1.2 billion worth of almonds from 186,000 acres and followed by $900 million for grapes from 195,000 acres. Fruit and nut crops worth $3.3 billion were half the value of Fresno farm sales.

Tulare county's farm sales dropped from $8.1 billion in 2014 to $6.9 billion in 2015, with lower milk prices for the county's 285 dairies explaining the drop.

There were many commodity stories in summer 2016. California's 900,000 acres of almonds are expected to produce a record two billion pound crop in 2016. Grower prices are expected to be about $2.50 a pound.

Table grape acreage is expanding to over 83,000 bearing acres. Workers in the San Joaquin Valley were being paid $10 to $10.50 an hour in summer 2016, plus $0.30 to $0.50 per 22-pound box, with a trio of two pickers and one packer sharing the piece rate. A trio picking 12 boxes an hour would share $3.60 to $6, or earn $11 to $13 an hour or $100 a day. Working six-day weeks for 18 weeks or 108 days, grape pickers could earn $10,800 or more a season.

Table olives have declined to 15,000 acres and 63,000 tons in 2016, in part because of the $500-a-ton cost of getting olives picked by hand. Many growers are shifting to nuts, which can be harvested mechanically.

Canada and the US produced 750 million pounds of blueberries, over half of the world's 1.4 billion pounds. California's 70 million pounds of fresh and processed blueberries in 2016 are almost 10 percent of US production.

Growers received $490 a ton for cling peaches that are canned in 2016. Acreage declined to 18,000 and production to 321,000 tons. With hand picking accounting for over half of production costs, 10 percent of growers harvested cling peaches mechanically in 2016.

Growers of melons, cantaloupes, watermelons and honeydews, complained of labor shortages and described efforts to employ workers for longer periods. Van Groningen & Sons in Manteca, the state's largest producer of watermelons, says that three-fourths of its workers are employed six to eight months, and the other quarter are year-round employees.

Salinas hosted the Forbes AgTech Summit in July 2016. Most speakers predicted more labor-saving mechanization. Harold McClarty of HMC Farms said he "would do anything we could to get rid of as much labor as we can." Other speakers noted that employment in Salinas-area salad plants has halved in the past decade to 1,000 workers.

The Summit drew protests from local residents who objected to the city subsidizing developers of labor-saving farm equipment. Some of the protestors directed their anger at Driscoll's, the largest berry marketer, accusing it of not paying its 700 berry growers enough to pay their workers higher wages.

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