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April 2018, Volume 24, Number 2

California Agriculture

California's farm sales were $46 billion in 2016, down from $49 billion in 2015. Iowa was the number two farm state, with farm sales of $27 billion. California exported farm commodities worth $20 billion in 2016, led by $4.5 billion worth of almonds, $1.5 billion worth of wine, and $1.4 billion worth of dairy products.

The value of California crops was $35.4 billion in 2016 and the value of livestock was $10.5 billion. California's leading commodities in 2016 were milk worth $6.1 billion; grapes worth $5.6 billion; almonds worth $5.2 billion; cattle worth $2.5 billion; and lettuce worth $2 billion. These five commodities accounted for almost half of California's farm sales.

The four leading farm counties accounted for 52 percent of the state's farm sales: Kern had farm sales of $7.2 billion; Tulare $6.4 billion; Fresno $6.2 billion; and Monterey $4.3 billion. Kern country accounted for 25 percent of the state's grape sales, 21 percent of almond sales, and 42 percent of pistachio sales.

California's most valuable crop is almonds. Over 80 percent of almonds are exported, and rising demand has led to higher prices despite record production of 1.3 million metric tons in 2018. California's almond trees yield an average 5,500 almonds each.

Many pension funds are investing in almond orchards, believing that consumer demand will continue to increase. Trees begin to produce almonds after three years, reach peak production after seven years, and can continue to produce nuts for two decades. Some funds are investing in southeastern Australia because of cheaper land and plentiful water; Australia's 100,000 acres of almonds is increasing by 10 percent a year.

During the 1980s and 1990s, California's raisin industry was the state's largest employer of hand workers, hiring over 50,000 during the typical six-week harvest for over 300,000 acres. Today, the state's 40,000 acres of strawberries require 60,000 or more workers for longer seasons.

The raisin industry has shrunk and mechanized. About 30 percent of the state's 157,000 acres of raisin-type grapes were harvested mechanically in 2016; yields are rising as more growers use overhead trellis systems that increase pruning costs and reduce harvesting costs. About 40 percent of the 362,000 tons of raisins were exported in 2016.

Grazing. Many western cattle and sheep ranchers allow their livestock to graze on public lands during the summer months. However, the federal government is reducing the number of animals permitted on public lands, from 12 million in 1979 to seven million in 2016.

USDA's Forest Service charges $1.41 per cow per month to graze on public lands, compared to $20 a month on comparable private land. A tenth of the 95 million US cattle spend some time grazing on public lands, but environmental groups say that almost 10 million cattle is too many for arid western lands.

Cannabis. The California Growers Association in February 2018 reported that fewer than 600 of the state's 69,000 known marijuana growers had obtained state licenses; some growers got multiple licenses, explaining why over 2,000 were issued. These 600 licensed growers are expected to produce 4.1 million pounds of cannabis a year, double current production of legal marijuana.

The state estimated that taxable recreational marijuana sales would top $5 billion in 2018, while medicinal sales would be about $1.5 billion. However, if most growers remain unlicensed, taxable sales could be lower.

In Humboldt county, fewer than 10 percent of the estimated 12,500 marijuana growers are expected to obtain licenses, in part because wholesale prices fell from $1,200 a pound to $300 a pound, leaving growers with too little revenue. Some hope that Humboldt marijuana will acquire a reputation for quality, the Napa of cannabis.