Milk prices boost Tulare County agriculture value to nearly $8 billion in 2013

The Fresno BeeJuly 8, 2014 

Higher milk prices helped Tulare County -- the nation's leading dairy region -- set a record for annual crop value, the county announced Tuesday.

The county's total gross returns in 2013 rose 25.7% to $7.8 billion, smashing the previous record of $6.2 billion.

Marilyn Kinoshita, Tulare County agricultural commissioner, said a robust export market pushed milk prices higher, giving Tulare County's dairy industry a much-needed boost.

"When you produce 11 billion pounds of milk like we do, anytime you have a significant price increase it translates to a massive amount of revenue," said Kinoshita.

Milk ranks as the county's No. 1 commodity, making up more than a quarter of the county's total crop value. On its own, milk was valued at $2 billion, up 14.9% from the previous year.

Mike Marsh, chief executive officer of the Modesto-based Western United Dairymen, said the global demand for California milk products, including whole milk powder, cheese and butter, has been "fantastic."

"We don't even have an adequate supply to fill the demand worldwide," Marsh said. "And while 2013 had high prices, 2014 will eclipse last year. We are on another record pace."

Kinoshita said that while most of the crop report had mostly good news, not everything was positive. The report that was presented to the Tulare County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday revealed one of the outcomes of the ongoing drought: more beef cattle being sold.

A lack of rainfall has decimated the region's rangeland forcing ranchers to sell their cattle at lighter weights and for less money. In some cases, cattle ranchers have liquidated their herds because they can't afford the cost of buying feed.

Kinoshita said the number of cows being sold increased by 42,000 last year to 637,000.

"I've heard people say that we may have half the number of cattle on the range this year, than we did last year," she said. "And it is all drought related."

Still, despite a dry year, some crops continued to thrive. The county's total grape total value reached $985 million.

The entire nut and fruit category jumped 43% with most of the growth a result of higher prices for almonds, pistachios and walnuts. All three nut crops have benefitted from strong domestic and foreign demand. As demand grows, so do the number of acres. Among the fastest growing is the pistachio crop that grew by 11,000 acres to 41,000.

Kiwi fruit and olives are rising stars in the county. Kiwi acreage rose by 1,870 acres to 2,450, and its value jumped from $5 million to $52 million. A growing interest in olive oil has caused an increase in olive acreage up from 9,690 to 12,300.

Kinoshita said the 2013 crop benefitted from a dismal 2012 crop that triggered an increase in demand and higher prices.

Field crops, including wheat, alfalfa, and cotton, all declined in acreage and value. Among the biggest drops was wheat, whose acreage declined from 44,800 acres in 2012 to 22,300 acres in 2013. Its value also plummeted from $42 million to $20 million. A switch to higher-value crops and dry weather contributed to the decline in acreage.

The 2013 report will be posted soon on the Tulare County agricultural commissioner's webpage

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6327, or @FresnoBeeBob on Twitter.

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