October 2022, Volume 28, Number 4
California farm sales topped $51 billion in 2021, up from $49 billion in 2020, 12 percent of US farm sales of $434 billion, including $238 billion from the sale of crops and $195 billion from the sale of animal commodities.
In 1970, California accounted for 10 percent of US farm sales. Some 8.5 million acres were harvested in 1970, including three-fourths field crops led by 1.9 million acres of hay, 1.1 million acres of barley, 660,000 acres of cotton, 535,000 acres of wheat, and about 330,000 acres each of rice and sugarbeets.
There were 450,000 acres of grapes in 1970, including 55 percent raisin grapes and 30 percent wine grapes. Lettuce was the largest acreage vegetable, 145,000 acres, and there were 35,000 acres of fresh market tomatoes and 8,500 acres of strawberries. There were 160,000 acres of oranges, 80,000 acres of peaches, and 40,000 acres of pears.
There were 150,000 acres of almonds and 145,000 acres of walnuts in 1970; pistachio acreage was not recorded.
Persisting drought is changing cropping patterns. Sacramento Valley rice farmers have some of the most senior water rights, but in 2022 rice acreage fell to 285,000, the lowest since the 1950s. California farmers specialize in Japonica varieties used in foods such as sushi and paella. One reason for declining rice acreage is that many farmers also have perennial crops, so that less water means diverting the water available to almonds, pistachios and walnuts. Acreage of tree nuts has continued to increase despite rising costs for fertilizer and water and stable or declining prices.
Mechanization. Rising labor costs are prompting more efforts to mechanize tasks now done by hand. The keys to mechanization include uniform ripening and standardizing plants and the fruits and vegetables they produce. Over the next five years, farmers are likely to make incremental changes that improve worker efficiency and to adopt labor-saving machines in packing houses and other controlled environments.
By 2030, there are expected to be more innovations that improve worker productivity and more robotic pruners, sprayers, and disease/pest detectors in use, setting the stage for mobile robotic systems that can identify and harvest crops. Mobile robotic systems for major commodities are in development, but many growers say that, until they are perfected, they need secure sources of seasonal workers, generally from lower wage countries.
In order to promote the mass adoption of mobile robotic systems, government could invest in basic research, facilitate collaboration across the supply chain, and share risks as robots are developed and refined. An ecosystem of private specialists who combine technology with the needs of specific farms is likely to evolve, and produce buyers may have to offer assurances to growers that they will purchase produce from more automated farms in order to justify grower investments.
Past predictions of the development and diffusion of labor-saving mechanization proved optimistic. For example, in the late 1970s it was estimated that five percent of the state’s lettuce, 10 percent of the raisin grapes, and up to 25 percent of the state’s fresh tomatoes would be harvested mechanically by 1985. Four decades later, mechanization shares are far less/.,.
Cannabis. Prop 64 legalized recreational use of cannabis in 2016; Prop 215 legalized medical marijuana in 1996. The goal was to legalize the industry and generate tax revenues, but the result is more illegal cannabis growing and selling than ever, and far fewer tax revenues than anticipated.
One goal of Prop 64 was to ensure that legal cannabis is produced by small farmers, which is why licenses are limited to one acre until January 1, 2023. However, larger farmers can accumulate multiple one-acre licenses, so that the 10 largest legal growers had 1,862 of the 8,338 licenses issued by the state in 2022. Humboldt county had over 15,000 grow sites before Prop 64, but had fewer than 1,000 licensed growers in 2022.
Prop 64 allows cities and counties to ban cannabis businesses within their jurisdictions. Two-thirds of the state’s cities prohibit brick-and-mortar retail cannabis stores, giving the state 1,200 retail outlets and 600 home-delivery businesses in 2022.
Growing cannabis illegally was downgraded from a felony to a misdemeanor, which is one reason why marijuana produced illegally accounts for 70 percent of the state’s cannabis sales. State and local taxes can be as much as 40 percent of the retail price of legal cannabis, fueling the untaxed black market.
California shares a Mediterranean climate, long periods of sunshine and no rain during the hottest time of the year, with southwestern Australia, Central Chile, and South Africa. The five regions with Mediterranean climates account for two percent of the world’s land area but 20 percent of its plant species, some of which are threatened due to fewer winter storms to replenish water supplies.