(Part 3 of a series)
If we begin an economic development visioning process, the first thing we need to ask ourselves is: What are we good at?
An obvious answer is agriculture. At more than $1.3 billion in sales in 2010, ag is the biggest, single economic activity in the county, from farming to processing to marketing. Our farms produce more than 200 cash crops. The 10 biggest in terms of harvest sales in 2010 were almonds, pistachios, milk, grapes, cattle, replacement heifers, pollination, alfalfa, nursery stock and poultry.
This is a wonderful thing for our county, but it has one drawback. Agriculture in Madera County is a mature industry. There is relatively little unused acreage left to expand plantings. Farms already have been developed, and while some farmers growing permanent high-value crops may change what they produce in their fields, the expansion potential is limited.
Agricultural support businesses, such as machinery dealerships, feed and fertilizer dealers, chemical dealers and processors also are mature businesses. While some of these companies are modernizing to do a better job and be more competitive, there isn’t much room for significant expansion.
In only one ag area is there much of an economic vacuum, and that is in dairying. There is no dairy processor in Madera County. That is not the case with other crops. The county has a high degree of vertical agricultural integration. We have one of the biggest wineries in the world in the Canandaigua Winery, as well as about a dozen boutique wineries. We have companies that process and market almonds and pistachios. We process and market raisins. We process and market tree fruits. But the $236.6 million in milk produced in the county each year leaves the county for other processors.
Some of that milk could be diverted to a cheese or yogurt plant in Madera County if one or more could be developed here.
Cheeses and yogurts are growing in popularity throughout the United States. California cheeses, due to the skills of the cheese makers and the marketing savvy of the California Milk Advisory Board and the California Artisan Cheese Guild, have made California the nation’s biggest cheese state. Yet, our county has yet to capitalize on this.
Madera County is No. 9 on the list of California dairy-producing counties, but we have yet to take advantage of the potential for processing.
Depending on size, a cheese or yogurt plant might employ 100 to 1,000 people. But first, we have to go out and get one. That is where economic development visioning comes in.
(Tomorrow: We examine another potentially great economic opportunity.)