2011 crop report shows strawberries are SLO County's most valuable

Wine grapes aren’t the No. 1 crop for the first time in 20 years

sdaniel@thetribunenews.comApril 3, 2012 

Strawberries are held by Gilbert Herrera of Herrera Farms in Nipomo.

THE TRIBUNE

For the first time in San Luis Obispo County’s farming history, strawberries are the top crop, knocking wine grapes into the runner-up spot.

“We had a feeling grapes would probably slide in value,” said Marty Settevendemie, the county agriculture commissioner, who issued the 2011 crop report. “Strawberries had good production and solid prices. Grapes had some tough growing conditions. The (spring) frost set them back. If we didn’t see production loss in grapes, we probably would have seen a very close race.”

The crop report, released Monday, shows the overall value of county crops increased by 3 percent over the figure for 2010. Total crop values for 2011 were estimated at $736.2 million, compared with $713 million a year earlier.

The total value of strawberries was more than $179 million, representing 24 percent of the value of the county’s entire agricultural industry. Despite strong prices and high demand, wine grapes were valued at slightly more than $129 million — a 25 percent drop in total value compared with 2010.

The crop report measures gross revenues and does not take into account costs to farmers and growers such as fertilizer and pesticides, fuel for tractors, packaging and shipping to market.

The news about strawberries surprised even growers, among them Charles Okui. He manages Okui Farms in Grover Beach, where his family has grown the luscious red fruit since the 1950s.

“But when you think about it, it makes sense because there are more acres of strawberries grown in SLO County than ever before,” Okui said. The crop report noted that 741 more acres were harvested this year than in 2010.

Okui also said the growing season is longer now because new strawberry varieties such as Albion can be harvested nearly year-round.

Weather conditions in 2011 posed many challenges to wine-grape growers. Extremely chilly weather in April devastated crops.

“The frost was so severe in some areas that growers lost all or nearly all of their crop,” said Tom Hinkle, president of the Independent Grape Growers of the Paso Robles Area. Hinkle grows grapes on 30 acres off Union Road in Paso Robles and said he lost 60 percent of his crop in the 2011 frost.

“I’ve been growing grapes since ’99, and this was the lowest tonnage I have ever had,” Hinkle said.

Wine grape production overall was 34 percent less than in 2010.

Neither Hinkle nor Okui believes strawberries will overtake wine grapes as the county’s regular top cash crop. Both expect wine grapes to reclaim their status as the county’s top crop if the weather cooperates. In other findings:

• Cattle and calves made the list at No. 3. Favorable grazing conditions led to larger herd sizes, and higher-than-normal prices resulted in a 25 percent increase in value compared with 2010. Total beef production for 2011 was valued at more than $66 million, an increase from $53 million in 2010.

• The number of harvested acres dedicated to vegetable crops decreased by 5 percent from 2010, primarily because some vegetable farms converted land to strawberries. Labor shortages and the high cost of transportation also had a negative impact on the local vegetable industry in 2011. The value of vegetables decreased by 1 percent overall.

Top 20 value crops of 2011

1. Strawberries $179.0 million

2. Wine grapes $129.7 million

3. Cattle and calves $66.8 million

4. Broccoli $46.2 million

5. Vegetable transplants $34.8 million

6. Indoor decoratives $25.0 million

7. Cut flowers $23.7 million

8. Head lettuce $20.3 million

9. Avocados $17.3 million

10. Rangeland grazed $10.2 million

11. Napa cabbage $9.1 million

12. Lemons $8.1 million

13. Celery $7.9 million

14. Bell peppers $7.6 million

15. Outdoor ornamentals $7.0 million

16. Cauliflower $6.8 million

17. Leaf lettuce $6.6 million

18. Cabbage $4.3 million

19. Grain hay $3.9 million

20. Alfalfa hay $3.2 million

To view the full 2011 crop statistics report, go to www.slocounty.ca.gov/agcomm.

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