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January 2020, Volume 26, Number 1

California: F&V, Robots

California produced 43 percent of the US's $18.5 billion worth of vegetables and melons in 2018, followed by Arizona with seven percent. The most valuable vegetable was lettuce, where California's $1.8 billion in 2018 was two-thirds of the US's $2.7 billion. The next most valuable vegetable was fresh tomatoes, where California's $227 million was 28 percent of the US's $814 million in 2018.

US shipments of lettuce and field fresh tomatoes in 2019 were higher than in 2018, while shipments of asparagus and sweet corn fell significantly. Prices for many fresh vegetables rose in 2019, especially for celery, onions and cauliflower. Celery prices peaked in April 2019. Fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and bell peppers led in volume among imports.

The Resnick-owned Wonderful company is the world's largest producer of almonds and pistachios. In December 2019, Wonderful sued to block construction of a competing pistachio processing plant being built by the Assemi family near Fresno.

Darius, Farid, and Farshid Assemi were among the 800 growers who sold their pistachios to Wonderful before the Assemis decided to build their own plant and compete with Wonderful, which also sells Wonderful almonds, mandarins, pomegranates and sweet grapefruit. Wonderful controls Fiji Water, Justin Vineyards and the florist delivery service Teleflora.

Robots. Abundant Robotics has an apple-harvesting machine that harvested apples trained on trellises in New Zealand in 2019, while the Journal of Field Robotics published articles describing machines that could determine whether heads of iceberg lettuce are mature and then cut them.

Robots are likely to be adopted first by larger agribusiness firms that anticipate their use and plant new trees and vines to facilitate the use of machines that can identify and harvest fruit.

Oxbo 8000 over-the-row harvesting machines can pick blueberries, especially later in the season when there are fewer green berries on the vines and the grower price per pound is dropping.

Raisins. Harvesting 300,000 acres of raisin grapes was the most labor-intensive activity in California agriculture in the 1990s, requiring 50,000 or more workers during six to eight weeks. Raisin acreage has shrunk to 200,000 acres, and up to half of the raisins are dried on the vine, meaning that canes holding bunches of grapes are cut, the grapes dry into raisins while on the vine, and machines shake the vines to harvest the dried raisins.

Harvesting strawberries has replaced harvesting raisins as the state's most labor-intensive activity.

The need for labor in raisins is expected to continue shrinking as more growers plant Sunpreme grapes, which dry into raisins on the vine without the need to cut canes or prune vines in winter. Some growers are removing raisin grapes to plant almonds, whose acreage rose from less than 500,000 in 1990 to almost 1.5 million in 2020.

Almonds are the most valuable crop grown in California, worth $6 billion in 2017. Production topped 2.3 billion pounds in 2017, raising questions about oversupply. California's Sustainable Groundwater Management Act may limit growth in almond acreage in the San Joaquin Valley, where yields are 30 percent higher than in the Sacramento Valley, which has more access to water. Critically overdrafted groundwater basins are required to have plans to limit overpumping by 2020, which may slow the expansion of almond acreage in the San Joaquin Valley.

Almond consumption in China and India, countries with over a third of the world's people, is less than a tenth of the US average 2.6 pounds per person per year. There is little competition from other countries that produce almonds, so if almond consumption keeps increasing in China and India, and almonds are used to make commodities from milk to butter, US almond production and prices could continue to increase.