CIRS Blog about Rural California
California's farm sales fell from $54 billion in 2014 to $47 billion in 2015, largely because of the declining price of milk, whose value fell from $9.4 billion to $6.3 billion. The value of almonds fell by $0.5 billion, and the value of walnuts by almost $1 billion.
However, farmers are continue to plant more nuts. Bearing almond acreage has more than doubled from 418,000 acres in 1995 to 900,000 in 2016, and yields rose even faster from 370 million pounds to over two billion pounds. Walnut acreage rose from 177,000 in 1988 to 315,000 in 2016, and production more than doubled to 670,000 tons. California has 310,000 acres of pistachios expected to generate 555 million pounds in 2016.
Most nut farmers generate profits of $1,000 to $2,000 an acre, with pistachios the most profitable nut crop.
More acres of nuts are expected to come into production, including 220,000 acres of almonds, 70,000 acres of pistachios, and 65,000 acres of walnuts. The cost of establishing an acre of walnuts is estimated to be $3,800, an acre of almonds $2,300, and an acre of pistachios $1,900. Much of the new nut acreage is being developed by pension and hedge funds seeking current returns and capital gains as land prices rise.
Fresno was the leading U.S. farm county until 2013, when the drought reduced irrigation water available to large farmers on the western side of the county. Fresno's farm sales for 2015 were $6.6 billion, down from $7 billion in 2014, and led by $1.2 billion worth of almonds from 186,000 acres and followed by $900 million for grapes from 195,000 acres. Fruit and nut crops worth $3.3 billion were half the value of Fresno farm sales.
Tulare county's farm sales dropped from $8.1 billion in 2014 to $6.9 billion in 2015, with lower milk prices for the county's 285 dairies explaining the drop.
There were many commodity stories in summer 2016. California's 900,000 acres of almonds are expected to produce a record two billion pound crop in 2016. Grower prices are expected to be about $2.50 a pound.
Table grape acreage is expanding to over 83,000 bearing acres. Workers in the San Joaquin Valley were being paid $10 to $10.50 an hour in summer 2016, plus $0.30 to $0.50 per 22-pound box, with a trio of two pickers and one packer sharing the piece rate. A trio picking 12 boxes an hour would share $3.60 to $6, or earn $11 to $13 an hour or $100 a day. Working six-day weeks for 18 weeks or 108 days, grape pickers could earn $10,800 or more a season.
Table olives have declined to 15,000 acres and 63,000 tons in 2016, in part because of the $500-a-ton cost of getting olives picked by hand. Many growers are shifting to nuts, which can be harvested mechanically.
California had a "normal" water year in 2010-11 and again in 2015-16. Droughts reduced the availability of water for the 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 crop years. However, farm sales climbed during the drought years, from $43 billion in 2011 to $47 billion in 2012 to $51 billion in 2013 and $54 billion in 2014. Sales in 2015 are expected to set another record.
The reason that farm sales rose even as the availability of water fell from the long-run average of 50 million acre-feet to a low of 31 million for the 2014 crop year was that farmers switched scarce and expensive water from low-value and water-intensive crops such as alfalfa to more valuable crops such as fruits, nuts and vegetables. About 500,000 acres were fallowed in 2014 and 2015, usually land that would normally be used to produce low-value field crops, and farmers pumped ground water to substitute for less surface water.
Monterey County, the nation's salad bowl, had farm sales of $4.5 billion in 2014, led by leaf lettuce worth $775 million, strawberries worth $709 million, and head lettuce worth $651 million. Vegetable crops were worth $3.1 billion and fruit crops $1 billion. A Farmworker Advisory Committee meets quarterly with the Agriculture Commissioner's office to discuss labor issues.
California is projected to have a record crop of table grapes in 2016, some 117 million 19-pound boxes worth almost $2 billion. The state has 100,000 acres of table grapes, and the Scarlet Royal and Autumn King varieties are replacing Thompson seedless, Crimson seedless and Red Globe varieties. Autumn King can generate 2,000 boxes an acre, compared with 1,000 boxes from an acre of Thompson seedless. A third of the state's table grapes are exported.
The 2015-16 water year was close to normal; the state's 154 major reservoirs held almost 22 million acre-feet of water on April 1, 2016, more than 85 percent of normal. Federal and state farm water contractors are likely to get half or more of the water that they want. Each water district contracts for a specific share of the surface water available to the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, and CVP and SWP managers provide a percentage of each district's contracted water based on availability.
The California water system accumulates water as snow in northern California mountains and moves the water south via the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta as the snow melts in summer. However, pumping water from the delta into the aqueduct that moves water south is often restricted to preserve juvenile fish that can be sucked into the pumps.
Farmers are no strangers to struggle or drought. But this four-year drought is different than others, they say. It’s more widespread, touching nearly everyone who turns on the tap or starts an irrigation pump.
This past summer, wells dried up and farmland sat idle. The drought also came to mean that life on the farm has likely changed forever.
“In the early years when we went through a drought, we tended to say that this too shall pass,” said Richard Waycott, president of the Almond Board of California in Modesto. “But there is a different consciousness now. People are looking at the future very differently.”
Farmers talk of a new reality – one in which droughts are more of the rule than the exception, and water availability, both above and below ground, becomes less certain.
Almonds are irrigated with 3.5 acre feet or 42 inches of water, and the typical 124 almond trees per acre yield an average 2,270 pounds of nuts. One cubic foot of water is 7.5 gallons, and one acre is 43,560 square feet, so 502 gallons of water are used to produce a pound of almonds: (7.48 x 3.5 x 43,560 )/2,270 = 502. With about 380 almonds per pound, each almond requires about 1.3 gallons of water.
California's acreage of long-staple Pima cotton declined as more farmers switched to almonds. California had over 300,000 acres of Pima cotton in 2011, and fewer than 100,000 acres in 2015. Despite cotton yields of over 1,200 pounds per acre, nuts and processing tomatoes require less water per dollar of revenue.
Over 70 percent of California grapes and almonds are irrigated with drip or a similar low-water technology. However, less than 10 percent of the alfalfa and corn used to feed dairy cows uses water-saving technologies; flood irrigation is typical.
A Fresno State study (www.fresnostate.edu/academics/drought/) focused on the effects of the drought in the eight-county San Joaquin Valley, emphasizing that areas most dependent on surface water suffered most. The report called for water budgeting, that is, recognizing the true value of water and pricing it accordingly.
California suffered its fourth year of drought in 2015, prompting the federal government to deliver no water to its Central Valley Project farm customers and the state to deliver 20 percent of contracted water to farmers. Agriculture uses about 80 percent of the state's developed or storable water that can be delivered via dams and canals. Annual farm sales of about $43 billion account for less than two percent of the state's $2 trillion GDP.
Governor Jerry Brown in April 2015 ordered urban water districts to reduce water consumption through incentives and fines by 25 percent in 2015. The State Water Resources Board enforces the water reduction plan via local water districts. Brown exempted agriculture from the cuts, prompting criticism. One commodity spotlighted was almonds, since the state's 900,000 acres require about four-acre feet of water per acre, twice as much as cotton, grapes or tomatoes.