Value of San Luis Obispo County crops increase in 2009

The value of San Luis Obispo County crops increased 3 percent last year compared with 2008, the county’s Department of Agriculture reported Thursday in its annual crop report.

Despite a lack of rainfall — because of a three-year drought locally that continued into 2009 — milder winter and summer temperatures led to ideal growing conditions, said Bob Lilley, the county’s agricultural commissioner. Moreover, farmers who rely on irrigation were fortunate to have enough water for their crops, he said.

The increase slightly outpaces the 2009 national inflation rate of 2.7 percent but is less than the 4.6 percent wholesale inflation nationwide reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, local agriculture’s fortunes rose while the national economy shrank 2.4 percent in 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Last year’s increase bodes well for 2010, said Lilley, who said the drought ended this winter.

“This is especially true for parts of agriculture that depend on rainfall, in particular the cattle industry, some dry land farming, and folks that irrigate,” he said. “They enjoy the rain because it helps to replenish aquifers and bring up well levels.”

Total crop values increased to an estimated $623 million in 2009 from $603 million the previous year. As was the case in 2008, wine grapes took the top spot.

While prices for the county’s grapes fell, higher yields created a 34 percent increase overall in value compared with 2008. Wine-grape values were $166 million, or 27 percent of the combined value of the county’s entire agricultural industry, according to the department.

Strawberries eclipsed broccoli for the No. 2 spot on the list of the county’s top 20 value crops. The local strawberry industry was valued at $73 million, a 12 percent increase over 2008. The industry expanded by 370 acres to 1,893 acres in 2009, a 24 percent increase over the previous year.

The county, Lilley said, has seen a gradual increase in strawberry production over the past 10 years as some vegetable land is now being used to grow the fruit.

“Demand continues to be high for strawberries,” Lilley said. “And there’s only a limited area in California — which is the biggest supplier of strawberries in the U.S. — where you can grow them.”

In Santa Barbara County, for example, strawberries have surpassed wine grapes as the No. 1 value crop, he said. Berries are grown there in the Santa Maria Valley.

Another bright spot was San Luis Obispo County’s cattle industry, which experienced a slight rebound last year because of good market prices. One thousand fewer cattle went to market in 2009 as limited grassland forage led to reduced herds.

Total production last year was valued at $52 million, up from $50 million in 2008, a 5 percent increase.

Other agricultural production did not fare as well.

Fewer vegetable acres were planted last year as a result of changes in market demand and drought conditions, Lilley said. This led to a 6 percent decline in overall value for vegetable crops.

“Drought was part of it, but some of the smaller growers had difficulty marketing their veggies,” he said. “In a marketplace with so many big conglomerates demanding lower prices, it’s harder for them to compete.”

Coastal avocado and Valencia orange trees had lower yields because of a week of unusually high temperatures in June, and some carrot fields were left unplanted as growers in the Cuyama Valley moved operations to the Central Valley.

The downturn in the real estate market had a big impact on the nursery industry, with the total value for that segment — indoor and outdoor ornamental plants, cut flowers and vegetable transplants — declining by 8 percent last year, compared with a 5 percent drop in 2008.

Cut flowers, indoor decorative and ornamental plant growers were hit with the biggest losses.

Still, even with so many aspects of the economy suffering last year, Lilley said agricultural production managed to grow.

“Ag tends to be able to ride through the rough economic times,” he said.

The county’s Top 20 Value Crops of 2009

Crop, Value, Percent change