Fresno County falls behind Tulare County as state's king of agriculture

The Fresno BeeJuly 15, 2014 

HARVEST

In a September 2012 photo, almonds are harvested west of Easton.

ERIC PAUL ZAMORA — THE FRESNO BEE Buy Photo

Fresno County was dethroned as California's leading agricultural producer in 2013 despite the rise of almonds as the county's second billion-dollar crop.

The ongoing drought contributed to declines in crop values. Last year, Fresno County's overall gross value fell 2.2% to $6.4 billion. In 2012, it dropped 3% to $6.5 billion.

The county slips to No. 2 behind dairy rich Tulare County, whose agriculture value jumped to a record $7.8 billion on robust dairy prices.

Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner Les Wright said the drought -- one of the worst in state history -- has pinched the production of several westside field crops including cotton, corn silage and barley. The field crop category fell by 42%.

Bad weather, low prices and the drought contributed to sizable declines in apricots, pomegranates and asparagus, according to the 2013 annual Crop and Livestock Production Report that was presented to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

Wright warned supervisors that next year's report may be even more sobering. In the past, west Fresno County farmers have been hit hardest by shortages of water. But this year, the drought is punishing growers on both the west and east sides.

"The impacts being felt by producers right now are worse than in the last two years," Wright said. "But even with the drought, we are still feeding the world."

Farmers lacking surface water are relying on groundwater pumping to sustain their crops. Others are buying water from Northern California, in some cases at high prices.

The good news, Wright said, is that some crops continue to increase in value despite limited water supplies.

Almonds have ended the grape industry's 11-year reign as the county's top crop. For years, Fresno has been known as one of the top grape production areas in the nation. And while grape production remains a major part of the county's overall agriculture industry, the rise of nut crops has been staggering.

Ten years ago, almonds were the eighth-ranked crop in the county. Now the nut is solidly in the top position with a gross value of $1.1 billion, surpassing grapes at $1 billion. Almonds were grown on 162,220 acres in 2013, up 5.4% from the previous year.

Agriculture leaders and farmers don't expect that ranking to change anytime soon.

"We all knew that one day almonds would overtake grapes," said Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. "And quite honestly that could be the fact for a number of years."

Jim Zion, managing director of Meridian Nut Growers in Clovis, says that as prices remain high and worldwide demand strong, almonds will continue to be farmed.

"We are seeing a lot of raisin grape acreage being removed to plant almonds and pistachios," Zion said. "The fact is, nuts are making money right now and farmers are looking for a better return."

This is the second time in recent years that Tulare County has held the No. 1 position thanks to its status as the leading dairy county in the state. The county took the top spot in 2002.

Last year, the county's 2013 milk production was valued at a whopping $2 billion, up 14% from the previous year.

Although Fresno County has dairy farmers, their production is about one-fifth the size of Tulare County's dairy industry.

The 2013 Fresno County crop report will be posted soon on the county's Department of Agriculture webpage.


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

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