The Stanislaus County Crop report for 2011 revealed that the county’s total value of agricultural commodities surpassed the $3 billion mark for the first time, skyrocketing more than 18 percent to $3.07 billion from $2.57 billion in 2010.
Including those commodities’ secondary effect on canning, transportation, warehousing industries, that figure could jump as high as $9 billion, according to Richard Homer, who compiled the crop report.
The values of West Side staples such as almonds and apricots continued to rise, while gross values of tomatoes and large lima beans declined because of lower prices and yields, according to the report.
All five Stanislaus County supervisors gushed as they listened to an overview of the crop report during their Aug. 28 meeting.
Supervisor Terry Withrow said any city, county or agency would fall all over itself offering incentives to attract business if any other $3 billion industry expressed interest in settling there. He said he wanted to ensure area leaders would not take agriculture for granted.
“There’s no place on this planet like what we have … as far as the farmland, the climate, the water, the soils — so we need to protect this,” Withrow said.
Other local ag industry representatives said in the past week that Stanislaus County’s largest industry is often overlooked.
“We take it for granted, we honestly do,” said Louie Durrer, the general manager of the Westley-based West Side Hulling cooperative, which hulls and shells almonds and walnuts for about 50 growers, many of whom live on the West Side.
Almonds, Durrer said, continue to be one of the county’s most important products, with imports bolstering the demand for the tree nuts.
“The amount of almonds we’re sending to India — they have more people than we have almonds,” Durrer said.
The cooperative processed 17.5 million meat pounds of almonds in 2011, compared with 13 million meat pounds in 2010.
The jump in production reflects a similar trend of increased yields in Stanislaus County — countywide, 168,000 meat pounds of the nuts were sold for $628.3 million in 2011, up from 111,000 meat pounds and $390.5 million in 2010.
While the shipments of the popular nonpareil almond variety appear have dipped slightly this year compared with 2011, Durrer said it was too early to tell what the overall yield would be. He expected the hulling and shelling facility to be plenty busy within two to three weeks.
He expressed optimism about the industry as a whole Thursday, Aug. 30, pointing to updated equipment the cooperative purchased within the past year that separates almonds from their shells.
“It’s a process like panning for gold; and at this point, it is almost gold,” Durrer said.
Apricots also did well this past year, continuing an upward trend in value from 2010 after a generally dismal previous decade for the commodity in terms of prices and market share.
Overall, apricots grossed $22.6 million in Stanislaus County in 2011, up from $20.4 million in 2010.Overall tonnage also increased — up from 53,700 in 2010 to 56,100 the year before.
“We’re to the point now where there is a pretty stable apricot market out there,” said Bill Ferriera, president of the Turlock-based Apricot Producers of California, which seeks to promote California’s apricot industry. “We’re selling everything we’re producing right now.”
Ferriera is always quick to note that the Patterson and Westley area is the dominant apricot-growing region in the nation, producing more than 90 percent of the apricots grown in the U.S.
Not all rosy
Despite the overwhelmingly positive trend within local agriculture during the past year, industry representatives say challenges may loom ahead.
Ferriera said labor needs would continue to be a challenge for apricot growers. Despite a countywide July unemployment rate of 15.7 percent — compared to the state’s 10.7 percent unemployment level and the nation’s 8.3 percent, all according to the state’s Employment Development Department — there has been a decline in people looking for farm work, Ferriera said, and apricots must all be picked by hand.
Water reliability also will continue to be a challenge, Ferriera said, particularly on the West Side, where much of the region depends upon state and federal irrigation water shipped south from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
In addition, not all commodities fared well in 2011, even if the industry generally had a good year in Stanislaus County.
For instance, tomatoes continued to make the “top 10” list of top-grossing commodities in the county, but their overall value plummeted from 2010 to $91 million from $147.5 million. That included $13.2 million for fresh tomatoes and $77.8 million for processing tomatoes.
Homer attributed some of the drop to fewer plantings and moderate summer temperatures, which led to a lower yields.
Another West Side staple, dry beans, had a somewhat mixed year in 2010.
While black-eyed beans and baby limas both had an extraordinary year in the county, with overall values rising 237 percent to $6.5 million and 210 percent to $10.4 million respectively, large limas took a nosedive from $31.6 million in 2010 to $16.8 million in 2011.
Cantaloupe prices also were down a bit from an unusually good 2010, dropping to $8.98 million overall from $12.8 million the previous year.
The dairy industry also continues to face major challenges because of the increasing cost of feed, according to representatives from the county agricultural commissioner’s office.
Overall milk prices rose by 128 percent from about $598 million to $766 million between 2010 and 2011, and prices for alfalfa hay rose by 171 percent, climbing from $41 million to $70 million during that same time period.
Several county supervisors and ag commissioner’s office officials said at the Aug. 28 supervisors meeting that the county must support the local agriculture industry and avoid imposing burdensome regulations, though they did not delve into specifics regarding those matters.
“We all enjoy a good meal, but what most of us don’t realize is the amount of resources it takes to put an average meal on the dinner table,” Assistant Agricultural Commissioner Milton OHaire said.
The county’s full report can be found at the Stanislaus County Agricultural Commissioner’s website at www.stanag.org.
Contact Jonathan Partridge at 892-6187, ext. 26, or firstname.lastname@example.org.