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Almonds likely still king of county agriculture

July 31, 2016

County crop report slated for late August

 

Almonds are harvested on a ranch in Madera County. Farmers throughout the county have begun harvesting crops. (Wendy Alexander)


Madera County’s official agricultural report for 2015 won’t be released for four more weeks, but a survey of crop forecasts offers some encouragement on the current state of local farming.


This year’s almond crop for California has been forecast to exceed 2 billion pounds, according to Almond Board of California. In recent years, almonds have been the county’s top crop, and the number of mature almond trees here is rising. Expect more in the future as well, as newer plantings start producing.


“I am seeing now a common trend of pulling grape vineyards out and putting almonds in … A bad year in almonds is apparently better than a good year in grapes,” said Madera County’s agriculture commissioner, Stephanie McNeill. “Sometimes some people don’t look favorably on increasing almond acreage but I don’t see it that way.”


Swapping one crop for another is a sound strategy when struggling to do well amid a lasting drought and other challenges, McNeill said. “You don’t go into business to lose money,” she said. “You go into business to break even or make a profit, so you can hire workers and send your children to school ... Farmers, like all businessmen, are trying to do a good job.”


The rise in almond orchards may not be having exactly the same impact on water usage as may once have had. Mature trees are less water hungry than young ones insofar as they’re less sensitive to deficits in irrigation, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. This has helped growers to conserve. Citing a 2012 FAO report, the California Almond Board said growers have reduced the water needed to grow a pound of almonds by 33 percent. The original UN report recommended sustained deficit irrigation as most “advantageous” for mature trees, especially when water conservation is a priority.


A 2014 Almond Sustainability Report by the state’s almond board said 70 percent of almond orchards use micro irrigation systems, which are more precise, efficient and waste less water. Two types of micro irrigation are drip lines and micro sprinklers, both of which target water delivery to where the plant needs it.


“I think it’s kind of a testament to our growers here that they’re very resilient and they’ve found a lot of ways during the drought  to conserve and get by with a minimum of water,” said McNeill about Madera County’s growers in general. “They’ve done a great job of that I think.”


The drought has nonetheless caused income to decline for some crops, both in the San Joaquin Valley at large and Madera County in particular, McNeill said. “Some counties are releasing their crop reports now and I’ve seen other counties that are (down) 14 percent. But I don’t think we’re going to be in that neighborhood.”

County agriculture
While almonds may still be king of Madera County agriculture, they are not the only nuts grown locally. Richard Matoian, executive director of Fresno-based trade group American Pistachio Growers, told Western Farm Press he expected a normal pistachio crop for this year, which will be a welcome boost compared to a relatively small crop in 2015.


“We have quite a few pistachios here and we don’t see the increased acreage like we see in almonds. They have modest growth each year. Walnut acreage we’ve been seeing going down,” McNeill said. “A lot of it has to do with what the world demands right now ... You’ll see a lot of acreage in certain spots because that’s where the processors are ... You’ll see local crops centered around an industry that processes them ...


“The dairies are at the mercy of some government institutions but they’ve been pretty much consistently in our top five crops for the county. “As for cattle and calves, the livestock people are so much at the mercy of nature.”


In 2014, livestock growers suffered due to the drought, which browned grazing land and forced them to ship cattle for slaughter early. Despite late seasons rains, “it was not the greatest year for them. … They also had to buy feed which was more expensive than native grasses … The rain is something that can make or break the grazing conditions. In (the report for) 2015, I expect to see improvement over 2014,” McNeill said.


Two crops on the decline in Madera County may be olives and grapes, which may surprise some. The state’s 2015 grape crush tallied a healthy 3,867,710 tons (down only 7 percent over 2014), according to California’s Department of Food and Agriculture. The same department forecast an average table olive crop for this year. Meanwhile the California Olive Oil Council forecast record-breaking production for 2015-2016, and the California Table Grape Commission predicted the same for its crop this year. But more significant locally is a decline in land devoted to grapes or olives.


“When I was a kid there was a guy (on TV) called Al Radka (who promoted Oberti Olives from Madera) ... and that was huge in Madera County. And now” not as much, she said. “It’s like any other business. You try to go with what’s profitable … I expect to see decreased acreage for grapes because a lot of them are being transitioned to other permanent crops that are more profitable.”


While olive trees are drought tolerant, table olives have the cost disadvantage of needing to be harvested by hand and facing comparison with higher valued almonds. The chairman of the Olive Growers Council of California, grower Rod Burkett, admitted to Modern Farmer magazine in 2015, “It just doesn’t make sense to be growing olives anymore. I haven’t made any money in the last five years.”


As has long been the case, the timber industry will greatly rise and fall from year-to-year based on government’s handling of its national parks. “The forest service, usually a year or two ahead of time, has logging contracts with people for this geographic area here to bid on ... If this happens to be a year when Madera has a contract with someone we’ll see an increase in income for timber,” McNeill said.


In past years, some farmers turned to “dry land farms, wheat and grain type crops,” McNeill said. “But we have not see a huge increase in row crop acreage.”


The Madera County crop report will be presented to Madera County supervisors Aug. 23. None of the information in this article is taken from that unreleased report.

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