Wine grapes again No. 1 in SLO County with record $242 million crop

Airel Juarez picks Chardonnay wine grapes in September 2016 during the harvest at Talley Farms.
Airel Juarez picks Chardonnay wine grapes in September 2016 during the harvest at Talley Farms.

Wine grapes have reclaimed their spot as San Luis Obispo County’s top crop, growing nearly $100 million in value in 2016 and shattering local records.

After a steep drop in 2015 that was blamed on weather and drought-related struggles, grapes rebounded with force, barely edging out strawberries, which have seen steady growth for more than a decade.

Wine grapes stretched across 46,745 acres in 2016 and produced $242.9 million in value, an increase of 65 percent over 2015. Strawberries were grown on 3,700 acres and came in at $241.2 million, an increase of 8 percent.

The new statistics released Wednesday show the overall value of agricultural crops in the county grew by 10 percent from 2015 to 2016 to a total of $915 million, even as drought conditions persisted into a fifth year.

The resurgence of rains left some growers with ideal growing conditions and no water shortages, while others experienced dry wells and damage from salt accumulation in the soil, according to a report from the county Department of Agriculture.

Wine grapes performed well because of a strong market and weather conditions. Minimal frost incidents allowed for good fruit set, and grapes were plucked from vines before fall rains arrived, resulting in a high-quality and bountiful harvest, according to the report.

While many crops saw large strides in growth because of market demand or adjusted growing conditions, not all crops fared well through another dry year.

Ranchers’ woes continued, as the number of cattle sold reached the lowest total since 1928.

Herds were reduced because of the drought and limited available rangeland, as expected. But consumer demand also contributed to the decline, as meat buyers shifted purchasing power away from beef to poultry and pork. Fewer livestock requiring feed also pushed down hay prices.

Here’s a look at other highlights from the report:

▪  Avocado trees rebounded with productive growth after being stumped — a cultural practice aimed at minimizing water requirements — contributing to a 169 percent increase in value over the year, from $16.6 million to $46.6 million.

▪  Wary field crop growers chose to plant more acres of drought-tolerant barley, increasing acreage by 30 percent. But the strategy didn’t pay off as hoped, as sporadic rain showers during late winter through early spring were inconsistent, resulting in crop yield reduction of 17 percent.

▪  Lemons increased in price and acreage, yet costs increased and productivity of the trees fell by 21 percent because of drought conditions. Growers navigated higher irrigation pumping costs and increased shipping regulations related to a quarantine for an insect.

▪  High-quality cut flowers remain competitive with import markets, resulting in a 7 percent increase in value compared with 2015. But other nurseries did not fair as well due to labor and water shortages.

▪  Ideal weather resulted in an abundance of vegetables in 2016, but produce grown in the Midwest flooded the market, resulting in poor prices.

Monica Vaughan: 805-781-7930, @MonicaLVaughan