grape vines
Photo: Shutterstock.com

By Jenifer VanAlstein, Feature Contributor, Valley Ag Voice

On September 28, 2021, Kern County Agriculture Commissioner Glenn Fankhauser released the 2020 Crop Report. Kern’s top 5 commodities, which according to the letter from Commissioner Fankhauser, make up more than $5.5 billion (72%) of the Total Value are: 1) Grapes; 2) Citrus; 3) Almonds; 4) Pistachios; 5) Milk. These have consistently been Kern’s top 5 products since at least 2010. It’s interesting is that, with the exception of Milk, all of these products are permanent crops. This is of great concern in regards to SGMA and the unreliability of the State’s surface water allocations. It’s actually quite remarkable that the industry has been able to produce such great yields considering water allocations under the current and previous State Administration, which has been unstable to say the least. One can conclude that our farmers are fantastic stewards of scarce resources. Imagine what they could have done with the allocations they paid for.

Rounding out the top 20 commodities this year are: 6) carrots; 7) cattle; 8) pomegranates; 9) potatoes; 10) apiary; 11) garlic; 12) eggs; 13) nursery; 14) alfalfa; 15) silage & forage; 16) blueberries; 17) bell peppers; 18) pasture; 19) onions; 20) tomatoes. The top twenty commodities, according to Commissioner Fankhauser, make up 95% of the total value of Kern’s crops. In 2019, hemp was #15, but that is the only time in which hemp made an appearance on the top 20 list. Of course, this was due to the legality of the product, preventing it from being commercially produced at all prior to 2018. 

There are many factors that are considered when producing the crop report. The County Ag Commissioner’s office considers total acreage, total yield, and commodity price.

Valley Ag Voice staff discovered some trends that are quite fascinating. While Kern’s total permanent acreage has increased dramatically since 2010 (from just shy of 363,000 to nearly 575,000), it came at a cost to crops such as alfalfa, cotton, roses, and wheat. Traditionally, alfalfa has been a staple product of Kern. But in the last year, the acreage decreased dramatically (12%) and yield and price both decreased. Water, or lack thereof, is a major contributor to this reduction. Cotton acreage has also been on a steady decline, with almost 5,000 acres lost in 2020 alone. The Ag Commissioner’s office does not foresee either of these crops making a comeback as more growers are switching to permanent and more valuable crops. The same would most likely be the case for wheat as well.

A few products that saw an increase were pomegranates and blueberries. This is most likely due to the increase in popularity of these products in recent years. Both fruits have tremendous health benefits and this momentum lead to an increase in demand, even though the actual acreage decreased slightly. For pomegranates, one can guess (since that information is confidential) that the trees are more mature and producing more fruit. There has also been an increase in blueberry acreage as more growers started getting into the industry. Blueberries have also seen a higher demand in recent years because of the health benefits, resulting in higher commodity prices. The export market for blueberries also opened up so farmers are able to export product to more countries. The downside of blueberries is that they are very labor intensive; they must be handled more delicately in the field and in processing, and the harvest window is very short.

Cherries and roses have also seen better days. The cherry acreage has been decreasing slowly over time because of their difficulty to grow in Kern. Cherries need rain to push the acidity of the soil down, but since we have not had rain and this cannot be done as well with drip irrigation, the trees are struggling. Natural disasters and difficult weather conditions (such as hail) have caused many cherry growers to have to do disaster declarations. Thus, growers are just getting out of the cherry industry in Kern. Roses have also lost significant acreage. What was once a flourishing industry in Wasco has decreased; where there used to be roses, you can now find mostly acres of higher valued nut crops.

The most noticeable crop change was hemp. As mentioned, prior to 2019, hemp was not grown nor counted on a commercial scale. After the registration drop off through the CDFA became available, there was a huge interest in hemp farming because of Kern’s ideal climate. Thousands of acres of hemp were harvested, but when it came time to put the product on the market, growers had a very hard time selling it. Essentially, the market was flooded, so, consistent with the principles of supply and demand, commodity prices dropped. With the lower price for the product, the oversupply of inventory, and the always-changing regulatory environment, many growers opted to not plant new crops until they can sell their current inventory. Regulators are also requiring more expensive and frequent testing, thus increasing the cost of growing while commodity prices remain lower than expected.

Overall, Kern’s agriculture industry saw a 1% increase from last year—which is very impressive in itself, especially considering all the challenges of 2020. What does that tell us? It tells us that our growers know what they’re doing. They continue to feed the world under an ever increasingly burdensome regulatory environment and near-zero water supply.