California drought takes toll on SLO County’s crop production

Strawberries remained the county’s top crop in 2015, racking up a value of more than $222 million.
Strawberries remained the county’s top crop in 2015, racking up a value of more than $222 million.

Unusually cool and windy springtime temperatures and continuing severe drought caused a 31 percent drop in wine grape production in San Luis Obispo County in 2015. Dry conditions also continue to force dramatic reductions in cattle herds.

However, growing conditions last year were favorable for strawberries, making that fruit the leading crop in value for the second year in a row at $222.6 million. Wine grapes were valued at $146.4 million and were the county’s second-leading crop.

Total crop value in 2015 was $828.8 million, down 8 percent from 2014.

Those are some of the highlights from annual crop statistics released Tuesday by the San Luis Obispo County Department of Agriculture.

“Unusually cool spring temperatures and strong winds caused wine grape blossoms to shatter before the fruit was set on the vines in many areas,” said Martin Settevendemie, county agricultural commissioner. Four years of profound drought also took a toll on wine grapes. Without adequate rainfall, salt tends to build up in the soil, and that stresses the vines and reduces production.


San Luis Obispo County ranks 15th in the state in terms of the value of its crops. More than 100 different crops are produced in the county, and that diversity provides stability when drought and other conditions become challenging, Settevendemie said.

“It’s amazing how much agriculture contributes to the economy,” Supervisor Lynn Compton observed during Settevendemie’s report to the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

The drought continues to take a toll on other crops in the county, as well. Dry conditions affected avocados, dryland-farmed walnuts and the cattle industry.

The avocado crop dropped by 10 percent in 2015, and the value of the walnut crop went down by 25 percent. Avocado farmers continued to stump or severely prune back their trees to reduce their demand for water.

Over the past three years, ranchers have been selling off their herds because of a lack of grass for the cattle to feed on. The total value of livestock sales plunged 48 percent from 2014, down from $129 million to $66 million.

“By 2015, herd sizes in the county had been significantly reduced as evident by the sharp decrease in sales recorded at year end,” Settevendemie said.

The dramatic reductions in cattle herds led to grain and hay crops losing 7 percent of their value in 2015 because of decreased demand.

On the bright side, the demand for succulents and other drought-tolerant plants grew by 19 percent. This was caused primarily by statewide water conservation requirements, which prompted many homeowners to plant more drought-tolerant gardens.

Vegetable crops also did well, increasing by 10 percent in value from 2014. Leaf lettuce jumped from 15th place to No. 8, going from $6.8 million to $16.8 million in value.

Celery and bok choy made the top-20 list in 2015 after missing it in 2014. Two crops fell off the top 20 list this year — Valencia oranges and Napa cabbage. Napa cabbage took a big hit after ranking No. 10 with a $14 million value in 2014.

The county’s color booklet summarizing the crop report for 2015 will be published in July.

“Agriculture continued to be a significant economic contributor in 2015 and represents a central part of the rural character enjoyed by the local community, and a dependable source of high quality food and products for consumers around the world,” Settevendemie summarized.