Drought, lower prices eat away at Fresno County 2015 crop values

New almond trees grown in a field at Ashlan and Grantland avenues, an area west of Highway 99 in Fresno. Almonds were the county’s top-grossing crop in 2015.
New almond trees grown in a field at Ashlan and Grantland avenues, an area west of Highway 99 in Fresno. Almonds were the county’s top-grossing crop in 2015.

Fresno County’s overall crop value fell to $6.61 billion last year from a high of $7 billion in 2014 as the region battled drought, lower commodity prices and production issues.

The drop was a disappointment, but not a surprise, as the 2015 Fresno County Crop Report was presented to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

“Still, with all of that, Fresno County farmers and ranchers come together to do something magical,” said Ryan Jacobsen, chief executive officer of the Fresno County Farm Bureau.

“Millions upon millions of meals are served every single day from food that originated in this county, and it’s hard to comprehend what our farmers are doing … who are doing an incredible amount of work to pull all this together, to make us one of the top agricultural regions throughout the world.”

Almonds remain the county’s top crop, grossing $1.2 billion, followed by grapes and poultry, which earned $896.2 million and $561.1 million, respectively. New to this year’s top 10 list of crops was mandarins ($197.6 million) and oranges ($153.8 million). Mandarin demand and higher prices increased production, the report said.

Dropping off the list were pistachios and cotton. Pistachio production significantly decreased because of a “blanking” problem that left many shells without nuts, the farm bureau said. That’s a reduction in value of $248 million. Cotton is falling victim to the drought, decreasing by more than 7,000 acres and more than $47 million in value.

“The lack of a reliable water supply continues to fallow productive land,” said Les Wright, the county’s agricultural commissioner.

West side farmer Dan Errotabere and his brothers grow a variety of crops – from almonds and pistachios to garlic and tomatoes. They have fallowed a lot of land, too.

“The water shortage with the fallowing and cost of farming being much higher means the margins are even tighter yet for farming,” Errotabere said.

Water issues continue to play a role, but what’s important “for the takeaway, beyond the raw numbers, is the production capacity” of this area, Errotabere said. “This area, in California, is the only one in North America that allows this many crops to be grown year-round. We’re the benefactors of that.”

Highlights from the report show an increase in vegetable crops. Eggplant value was up 66.27 percent, while the number of acres harvested more than doubled that of 2014. Honeydew acreage was up 1,560 acres and pulled in better yields and prices, driving the value up 86.1 percent.

Fresno is the first of the state’s top three ag-producing counties to submit its annual crop report. Last year, Fresno ranked third behind Tulare and Kern counties. Wright expects Fresno to maintain its standing.

Record high dairy prices propelled Tulare to become the state’s top agricultural leader last year. About one-third of Tulare County’s total value came from milk.

Fresno County Supervisor Andreas Borgeas jokingly asked Wright if Fresno could top Tulare if dairy was taken out of the picture.

“It might,” Wright said. “I can guarantee you we’ll be at least No. 3.”

BoNhia Lee: 559-441-6495, @bonhialee