Written by Edward Smith
Delays involving coronavirus pushed the publishing of Central Valley crop reports back this year. While farm receipts from 2018 to 2019 show an almost unchanging total, beneath the surface, shifts in dominant crops have begun to occur as growers face labor shortages and higher water demand.
Cumulatively, ag commissioners across Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Madera counties report gross values in 2019 equaling $19.41 billion, down from $19.45 billion in 2018.
Almonds have been the top crop for several years in Fresno County, but in other counties, they are still coming into their own.
In Tulare County, almonds ranked No. 6, up from No. 8 the year before. The nut grossed $426 million in 2019, up from $311 million. Acreage also increased, up 11,000 acres from 2018 to 78,300 acres.
Growers have been fearing a price drop as acreage continues to grow, said Roland Fumasi, North American Regional Head for RaboResearch Food & Agribusiness in a previous interview. Supply continues to grow, setting shipment records. Another record year is predicted for the crop, with estimates ranging at 3 billion pounds being produced.
Lower prices means some California crops can better compete abroad against other producers, but the United States produces 80% of almonds worldwide. Lower prices don’t give California growers an edge like they should. However, lower prices means more people can afford the nut. Because of lower pricing and strong demand, shipments have been robust, Fumasi said.
Almonds averaged $4,942 a ton across the four counties, according to the crop reports in 2019. Prices in 2018 averaged $4,664 a ton.
Decreases in wine acreage lead a retreat in grapes across the Central Valley. In Fresno County, raisin and table grape acreage had slight increases. Grapes used to consistently hold the top spot over the years, competing with citrus. Of late, vineyards have bequeathed that title to less labor-intensive crops such as almonds.
Table grapes have seen a rise over the past few years, according to Ian LeMay, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association. There has been a shift in varieties for sweeter grapes, he said.
The industry still relies on human hands and labor represents the biggest issue, followed by water.
Bunches of grapes are still picked by hand, then sent down the rows in wheelbarrows where they’re packed. Even in the off-season, vines need to be thinned and prepped.
Forty percent of table grapes go overseas and foreign markets view California grapes as “premium,” said LeMay. So while labor demands have put pressure on getting higher prices, that view of quality coming from the Central Valley hasn’t affected the fruit’s ability to compete internationally “yet,” said LeMay.
Grapes grossed $2.07 billion, down from $2.27 billion in 2018. Acreage increased in Tulare County to 53,680 acres from 51,950 acres in 2018. Acreage decreased in Fresno County to 164,549 acres from 168,038 in 2018.
Over the last few years, citrus has struggled, said Casey Creamer, president of California Citrus Mutual.
Larger volume crops coupled with trade disputes have caused problems all around for citrus growers.
“When one is out of whack, it creates a real problem in the industry,” said Creamer.
Exports represent 30% of the market for citrus.
Oranges, both navel and Valencia, grossed $1.17 billion, up from $762 million, according to crop reports.
Creamer says 2020 has cause for growers to be more optimistic about citrus.
The loss of restaurant purchasing has put lemons at a loss, but domestic demand for citrus, especially in the face of a pandemic, has raised pricing for oranges and mandarins.
The upcoming winter crop for navels looks like the fruit will have good size and quality, Creamer said.
It is a little too early to tell how foreign markets will be for the upcoming crop, but he anticipates domestic demand to continue to be strong.
A phase-one agreement in trade deals between the U.S. and China in February dropped tariffs on citrus to 35% from 75%. The fact that the development occurred a month before the pandemic stymied any potential boon growers could have experienced from the negotiation. Growers may see a benefit for this season’s harvest, however.
Some other notable development occurred in fruits and veggies.
Melons did well in 2019 in Fresno County, growing to $194 million from $156 million in 2018.
Lettuce leaf more than tripled to $97 million from $31 million. Recorded price per unit in the crop reports almost tripled to $1,350 a ton from $500.
Garlic and onions had a tough year with late spring rains, according to Bob Ehn, CEO of the Garlic and Onion Research Advisory Board.
A fungus called garlic rust was prevalent, causing growers to spray three to five times that season. Hail also damaged a lot of fresh market onions.
Onions halved to $178 million from $369 million. Garlic dropped to $365 million from $434 million.
2018 was a banner year, however, setting high marks for the crops. 2020 is looking to do the same, said Ehn.
The advisory board is looking to stretch its influence into Kern and Madera counties. Critical water issues in west Fresno County could pose a threat into the future, Ehn said. In the past 10 years, that region of Fresno County grows 95% of garlic for the country.