Low milk prices, water shortage due to drought knock Tulare to No. 2 ag value county in California

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

TULARE COUNTY – Curdled milk prices and a drought hangover dragged Tulare County out of California’s top spot of agriculture producing counties for the first time in four years.

Tulare County agriculture commissioner Marilyn Kinoshita delivered the souring news to the Tulare County Board of Supervisors at its Sept. 19 meeting. Tulare County fell to the No. 2 spot, behind Kern County and in front of Fresno County, primarily due to poor milk prices. Kinoshita said overall milk production dropped by 4.2% and price per hundredweight, or per 100 pounds of milk, dropped by 40 cents from 2015 to 2016. That represents a $184 million decrease in milk and 3,600 fewer trucks shipping milk from Tulare County producers. Any drop in milk production is significant as it represents about a quarter of Tulare County’s overall commodity value.

“We had about 10 months of lousy milk prices,” Kinoshita said. “It was a significant loss to our local economy.”

In addition to poor milk prices, Tulare County saw losses in field crop and vegetable crop acreage. Field crops were down 73,000 acres and vegetables were down 469 acres. Pomegranates also took a major hit dropping $33 million in value in a single year.

“They’re trying to stabilize following the drought,” Kinoshita said.

Supervisor Steve Worthley reminded those at the meeting, as well as his fellow supervisors, that 2016 came on the heels of the last drought year and was the first year that farmers received any surface water from federal contracts through the Central Valley Water Project and other contracts through the Friant-Kern Canal.

“[Farmers] were still dealing with the drought and zero allocations [from previous years],” Worthley said. “It will be a different report next year.”

Kinoshita said Kern County was one of the few Central Valley counties to see an overall increase of 8% in gross value, in contract to the 8.8% decrease in Tulare County which is now ranked No. 2 followed by Fresno County at No. 3. Tulare County’s decrease was slightly larger than Fresno (down 7%) and Kings (down 1%) but far less than the losses in San Joaquin County (down 14%). Tulare County has held the top spot in agriculture since 2013.

Despite the drop in ranking, Tulare County did see some positive trends including an increase of 40,000 acres in permanent plantings of nuts, mostly due to pistachios and almonds, with a note that an additional 6,300 acres of almonds were planted just after the cut off for the annual statistics. Along with walnuts and navel orange, pistachios helped offset the field crop losses with a $33 million increase in value in fruit and nut crops for 2016.

Kinoshita also noted 2016’s $6.3 billion gross value is still the fourth highest in Tulare County history, slightly more than 2012 ($6.21 billion) but trailing the record highs of 2013 ($7.35 billion), 2014 ($8.08 billion) and 2015 ($6.98 billion). Citrus had a particularly good year thanks to lemons. The fresh lemon crop made the top 10 list of million dollar crops in 2016 after ranking 14th a year earlier. Overall, lemons total value exceeded $117 million on just over 7,000 acres.

“Lemons made their first appearance on the top 10 list [in 2016],” Kinoshita told the board. “Their value to acreage ratio is impressive.”

Tulare County continues to boast a diverse crop portfolio with more 120 commodities produced here, 45 of which have a gross value over $1 million.

Supervisor Worthley pointed out the high number of non-bearing acreage. He said to this untrained eye this might be perceived as a negative, but those acres actually represented future growth. For example, there were more than 6,000 non-bearing acres set aside for almonds and pistachios and more than 3,000 for table grapes and tangerines and tangelos.

“Those replacement acres are [the farmers’] hope for the future,” Worthley said. “When that number gets to zero we are in big trouble.”

Board chairman Pete Vander Poel noted the prolific export of locally grown food to every corner of the globe. Asian markets of Korea, China and Japan were the leading export countries while New Caledonia and Guyana took the final two spots of list of 75 countries.

“We will be No. 1 again,” he commented confidently.

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