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April 2020, Volume 26, Number 2

California: Virus

The coronavirus dominated agricultural discussions after Governor Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order in March 2020. Farming and farm workers were exempt as an essential business, and many employers issued letters to their employees certifying their essential employee status

The major immediate impact of the stay-at-home order was the closure of hotels, restaurants and other outlets that buy and serve produce. Farmers that contracted with food-service firms lost markets for their commodities, encouraging some to find alternative outlets and others to destroy or not plant crops.

The state’s 120 fresh flower growers, who produce 80 percent of US fresh flowers, reported that the cancellation of weddings, meetings, and other events reduced their sales by up to 90 percent (most flowers sold in the US are imported).

Cling peach growers complained of too few workers to timely prune, thin and harvest the 16,000 acres for canned peaches. By some estimates, labor is 70 percent of variable production costs for canning peaches. Peach growers were paid $488 a ton for canning peaches in 2018 and 2019, and canners Del Monte and PCP were slow to sign new contracts with growers in 2020 because there are peaches in storage and cheaper imports are available from China and Greece.

California has 34,000 acres of strawberries in 2020, including 80 percent planted in the fall and harvested in spring and summer. The state’s strawberry acreage has decreased from a peak 40,000 acres, but higher yielding varieties have kept production stable. Meanwhile, Mexico has over 30,000 acres of strawberries, many of which are exported to the US.

The acreage of asparagus in San Joaquin county has been falling, from over 23,000 acres in 2000 to 1,000 in 2018. Rising land prices and labor costs have pushed the production of fresh asparagus abroad.

Sunpreme grapes dry into raisins on the vine, reducing harvest labor costs because the raisins can be harvested mechanically. Planting the Sunpreme variety allows both pruning and harvesting to be done mechanically, lowering grower costs in exchange for upfront investments.

Some 1.8 million hives of honeybees pollinated the state’s 1.3 million acres of almonds in February-March 2020 at a cost of about $200 per hive. A sixth of honeybee colonies, each with about 80,000 bees, die in winter, often in the northwestern or upper midwestern states; 2018-19, a third of honeybee colonies died. About 10 percent of a beekeeper’s income is from honey sales, and 90 percent from growers who pay for pollination services.

Pistachios. California displaced Iran as the world’s leading pistachio producer, accounting for almost half of global pistachio production between 2014 and 2019; another quarter is produced in Iran. Pistachios are alternate bearing, with low yields one year and higher yields the next. California yields are far higher than in Iran, enabling California to out-produce Iran with a quarter of Iran’s 400,000 hectares of pistachio trees.

The country of Georgia is a potential new producer of pistachios. One scenario foresees 100,000 hectares of trees yielding US levels of four tons per hectare and selling the nuts for $9 a kilogram to generate $4.5 billion a year. Yields in Iran are less than two tons per hectare, and the US bans imports of Iranian pistachios. Most California pistachios are the Kerman variety, named for Iran’s major pistachio-growing state.