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SLO County's crop values drop amid drought

Francisco Ventura carries a flat of San Andreas strawberries at Hayashi Farms in Oceano.
Francisco Ventura carries a flat of San Andreas strawberries at Hayashi Farms in Oceano. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Strawberries beat out wine grapes as San Luis Obispo County’s most valuable crop in 2014, increasing in both yield and total value from last year even as the drought eroded the overall local agricultural industry.

Overall, crop values came in at nearly $903 million, a decrease of nearly 2 percent compared to 2013 revised figures. A combination of drought-related factors — lower yields for many crops, poor water quality, less acreage planted and higher feed costs — contributed to the decline.

“Looking forward there will be continued challenges with not only water quantity but also water quality and soil issues and pest issues,” county Agricultural Commissioner Martin Settevendemie said while presenting the department of agriculture’s annual crop report to the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

“With 2015 predicted to be another dry year, the difficulties in producing agricultural products will increase,” he said in the report. “However, with over 100 different crops produced in the county, this diversity provides for stability when growing conditions become demanding.”

In fact, severe drought conditions impacted all of the county agricultural community’s top crops in 2014, which was the state’s third straight year of drought.

The local cattle and avocado industries were hit the hardest.

“It will take time for those industries to rebuild,” Settevendemie said.

Strawberry production rose, and the overall crop value of $205 million in 2014 was a substantial increase over the $171 million value for the previous year.

“Mild weather conditions and limited rainfall resulted in good production levels, low disease pressure and high-quality fruit,” Settevendemie said in his report.

Wine grapes of all varieties combined for an overall value of $203 million, an 8 percent decrease compared to record-breaking yields in 2013. In 2014, lack of water and warmer weather produced smaller clusters of fruit, although the quality of the grapes was exceptional, according to the report.

Beef cattle came in third, valued at more than $129 million, an increase of 34 percent compared to 2013, as cattle sales “peaked to record numbers and prices,” Settevendemie said in the report.

That’s due to the drought, which meant a lack of available grass for grazing and high prices for supplemental feed that forced ranchers to sell off their herds. In 2014, the county saw 15,000 more head of cattle going to market, Settevendemie said Tuesday.

“It’s been a hard year for the cattle industry in this county,” county Supervisor Debbie Arnold noted at Tuesday’s meeting.

The local avocado crop — which Settevendemie highlighted as the county’s “most dramatic and visible sign of the drought effects in 2014” — ranked seventh in the report, down from its fifth place slot in 2013.

Because of a lack of water, avocado farmers were forced to severely prune and stump their avocado trees to save them as irrigation declined in orchards throughout the county.

The crop’s 2014 value of $22.7 million was a dramatic fall from the $44.3 million value for 2013.

“Salt build up in the soil from lack of leaching rains also took its toll on trees,” Settevendemie said in the report.

It will take several years for avocado trees to bounce back to normal pre-drought production numbers once the rains returns, he added, and growers may need to replant entire orchards or shift to different crops to deal with the tree damage that 2014 brought.

Elsewhere, vegetable crop damage was widely reported from local farmers due to increased soil salinity and yield losses from the painted stink bug pest, bringing the combined value for all vegetables to more than $195 million, a decrease of 18 percent compared to 2013. Labor shortages were also a problem at harvest time, the report noted.

Nursery stock producers also suffered a 14 percent decline in value from $97.6 million in 2013 to $84.4 million in 2014.

Nursery farmers faced retail market uncertainty as the public shifted to wanting drought-tolerant plants, prompting the entire industry into “a transitional phase in 2014,” Settevendemie said in his report.

Aside from strawberries, the other bright spot was strong prices for lemons and Valencia oranges. Although lemon production was down in 2014 from the year before, demand was high because of a statewide shortage. Crop value for 2014 was $15.8 million compared to $12.5 million in 2013.

An 18 percent increase in Valencia orange production and strong prices meant a 47 percent boost in that crop’s value to $1.7 million in 2014, the report said.

The annual crop report only represents gross sales numbers and does not reflect costs farmers must pay to produce their crops. The report also does not reflect the multiplier effects farm sales have on the county's economy.

Hard copies of the report will be released in June.

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