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October 2018, Volume 24, Number 4

California Agriculture

California's farm sales were over $50 billion in 2017, making them 13 percent of US farm sales. The leading commodities were dairy products worth $6.6 billion; grapes worth $5.8 billion; almonds worth $5.6 billion; strawberries worth $3.1 billion; cattle worth $2.5 billion; and lettuce worth $2.4 billon. About 40 percent of the California's commodities by value were exported.

Three California counties each had farm sales of over $7 billion in 2017, led by Kern with $7.25 billion and Tulare and Fresno with just over $7 billion each. The leading commodities in Kern county were grapes worth $1.8 billion, almonds worth $1.2 billion, and citrus worth $940 million.

Tulare country's farm sales were led by $1.8 billion worth of dairy products and milk. Grapes were second, with wine, raisin and table grapes worth $905 million, followed by $637 million worth of cattle. Fresno country's farm sales were led by $1.2 billion worth of almonds. Grapes were second, with wine, raisin, and table worth $950 million, followed by $606 million worth of poultry.

Raisin grapes were the most labor-intensive commodity in the 1980s, but a combination of reduced acreage and more mechanization has sharply reduced harvest labor requirements. California expects to harvest 250,000 tons of raisins in 2018, up from 220,000 tons in 2017. Grower prices have been rising as raisin grape acreage declines from 280,0000 in 1999 to 160,000 in 2018, to a record $2,250 a ton in 2018. About 40 percent of California raisins are exported.

Almost a third of the 2018 raisin grape acreage was harvest with some type of mechanization. Mechanized systems use more labor for pruning in winter and less harvest labor in summer.

California has 35,000 acres of strawberries and, with two workers per acre, 60,000 to 70,000 workers are required to harvest them. Machines are being developed to harvest strawberries mechanically. Instead of replicating human pickers, cost-effective machines will require changes in how strawberries are grown.

Strawberries grown on raised beds (tabletops) are easier for people to pick and easier for machines to detect and harvest fruit. Planting tabletop strawberries costs $80,000 an acre, compared to $30,000 an acre for conventional berries planted in soil. However, as labor costs rise and machine costs fall, table top plantings harvested by machine could be economically feasible within five years.