Value of citrus crop in Tulare County now outshines milk

John Lindt

Milk prices have been tumbling for years and are now being outpaced by a variety of locally grown citrus

TULARE COUNTY – All Tulare County’s citrus varieties are generating more revenue today compared to past years and the total value of all citrus grown in the county now rivals the value of milk production here. You can probably thank the popularity of Vitamin C, easy peel fruit and ironically the pandemic.

Milk vs citrus: Who’s on first?

The latest Tulare County Crop Report published in 2020 analyzed 2019’s production and set milk’s value at $1.62 billion, down slightly from 2018. By contrast, the value of all citrus production here was $1.67 billion in 2019.

Milk may be Tulare County’s claim to fame—considered to be the leading agricultural commodity in Tulare County—known as the top milk maker in the United States. Despite all those positives, milk prices have been heading south for some time. In 2019, production fell by 11%. The value of milk in the 2015 Crop Report was $1.71 billion—as of 2019 it was down to $1.61 billion, and expected to go lower in 2020.

By comparison, milk production in Tulare County was valued at $2.5 billion in 2014. That year was a high for the Tulare dairy sector who received $2.5 billion based on an average of $22 per hundredweight (Cwt) for milk. By 2019 dairymen received just $16.30 per Cwt.

If Tulare County remains the number one milk county in the nation—what about citrus? At $1.67 billion the county is easily number one here too.

Florida citrus shrinks

Next in line is Kern County at just under $1 billion for citrus.

All of Florida’s vaunted citrus production was valued in 2019 at $957 million—more than $600 million less than Tulare County.

Florida’s citrus crop is largely processed for juice at a far lower value than fresh-eating citrus. Due to pest problems—citrus greening and other weather issues—the Florida citrus industry is worth almost half of what it was in 2016 when it was valued by the USDA at $1.6 billion.

While Florida is shrinking, Tulare County’s citrus varieties are exploding with new products hitting the grocery shelves like those juicy, giant easy-peel mandarins being packed this month in Dinuba by Sumo Citrus. The flavorful fruit, born in Japan, is now grown here. The big chubby citrus looks like its name.

Incredible variety

With help of researchers at the University of California, USDA and groups like Citrus Research Board the industry has grown the citrus category. Visit the citrus tasting event at Lindcove Field Station held each December.

Once a novelty, mandarins (tangerines) grown in Tulare County was a small, $14 million industry back in 1994. By 2015 tangerine production reached $191 million with thousands of acres of new trees being planted. By 2019 it was a $550 million category-approaching navels. Spurring the popularity of this fruit is a new variety ripening every month, many in the easy-peel category. This year US production of mandarins is forecast up 5% to 882,000 metric tons says USDA, due to a larger crop in California. Because the tangy fruit is so popular domestically record imports are also expected this year.

Another citrus that has grown in popularity in Tulare County is lemons—once considered mostly a coastal fruit. Lemon production in the county has grown from $88 million in 2015 to $191 million in 2019.

Mainstay navel oranges too have grown in value from $261 million in 1994 to around $750 million in 2019 in Tulare County.

Comparing 2014 to 2019—like we did for milk—citrus had a good year at $1.37 billion that has grown to $1.67 billion in 2019.

Back on the dairy farm, producers are seeing lower returns

This past year Tulare County dairymen did not have a great 2020 with the pandemic causing lots of price volatility and mostly a down year. A good measure is the Class 1V milk price—the category that makes up about 70% of the average milk check. For 2020 the average Class IV milk price was $13.46 compared to $16.30 in 2019 and the lowest in five years.

After starting out strong, markets were blindsided by COVID-19 and shutdowns of key dairy demand channels. These factors weighed heavily on prices. Prices were well above year-over-year levels in January 2020, but by April the economic impacts of the coronavirus were realized. Only by December did prices set recent close to 2019 levels says a USDA report.

By contrast, citrus prices in 2021 are looking up. In January of this new year Citrus Mutual is reporting higher prices for both navel and lemons this season perhaps because the trade war has calmed down and the pandemic has boosted demand for immune-building citrus. Earlier this year, growers also enjoyed a strong Valencia season with better prices. The same dynamic may help the embattled Florida citrus industry this new year as well.

As for milk—don’t forget milk is fortified with Vitamin D—believed to be key in fighting off COVID-19. Both citrus and milk “do a body good.”

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