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April 2022, Volume 28, Number 2

California: Dairy, Machines

Dairy. California surpassed Wisconsin as the leading producer of dairy products in the early-1990s, and today accounts for 18 percent of the US dairy herd of 9.4 million cows. Most of the milk produced in California is processed in the state and shipped elsewhere as cheese, dry milk and other products.

Dairy farmers expect the price of milk to exceed $20 per hundredweight in 2022 as the US dairy herd stabilizes at 9.4 million cows and as US and foreign demand for dairy products increases.

Milk arrives at processing plants and is bottled or turned into dairy products. Class one is fluid milk and usually generates the highest price for farmers, class two milk is used to make yogurt and ice cream, class three is turned into cheese, and class four is turned into milk powder and other storable products. An increase in demand for cheese in 2020 temporarily made the price of class three milk the highest of all classes.

Most California dairies are large, with at least 1,500 cows and 15 to 20 hired workers. Tulare county has almost 500,000 dairy cows and accounts for almost 30 percent of the state’s milk, followed by Merced, Kings, Stanislaus and Kern counties. States with rapidly growing dairy industries, such as Idaho and Texas, have similarly large dairies, while dairies in New York and Wisconsin often have fewer than 500 cows.

California subsidizes the production of natural gas produced from methane, and offers a higher subsidy for natural gas from cow manure than from garbage. California’s Low-Carbon Fuel Standard requires firms selling transportation fuels to buy per-ton credits if they exceed carbon-emissions standards; dairy renewable natural gas projects generate credits that dairies can sell. California Bioenergy has projects at 40 dairies that convert methane into natural gas, with 60 more projects in development.

Pigs are pregnant for 115 days, and most farmers keep them in gestation crates that do not provide sufficient room to turn around, about 24 square feet compared to the current average 14 square feet. California voters approved Prop 12 in 2018 to require pork sold in the state after 2022 to be from pigs whose pregnant mothers had enough room to turn around.

California produces very little pork, so the effects of Prop 12 will be felt mostly in midwestern states. Farmers as well as retailers and restaurants oppose Prop 12, whose implementation has been delayed pending a US Supreme Court review of a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision upholding Prop 12. Less than 10 percent of US hogs satisfy Prop 12 standards.

Machines. The Western Growers Association released a report in February 2022 that found farmers expect that a third- to two-thirds of their pre-harvest work will be automated by 2025, but they expect slower mechanization of harvest tasks. WGA noted that mechanizing ag tasks is hard; three-fourths of start ups have not gone beyond venture funding to generate revenues, and most have fewer than five functioning prototypes. Most automation projects focus on pre-harvest tasks or are harvesting assist devices rather than harvesting machines.

John Deere was a Vermont blacksmith who moved to Illinois in the 1830s, discovered that mud stuck to the cast-iron plows in use, and designed a self-scouring steel plow. Deere introduced driverless tractors that cost over $500,000 in 2021, and says they will be operating on 50 farms in 2022. The tractors have six cameras and are operated via smartphones. CNH Industrial is developing autonomous capabilities for its Case and New Holland tractors.

Nuts. California is the leading producer of tree nuts, led by almonds worth $6 billion in 2019, pistachios worth $2 billion, and walnuts worth $1.3 billion. Global pistachio production was almost a million metric tons in 2020-21, including almost half from California.


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