August 6, 2008

Higher Prices Push San Diego County Farm Revenue to New Highs

By Chris Bagley, North County Times, Escondido, Calif.

Aug. 6--A winter freeze, October wildfires and the specter of tougher regulations on livestock did little to stunt San Diego County's agriculture industry in 2007, and may have even helped some growers, according to an annual report published Tuesday.

Growers and ranchers took in a record $1.53 billion last year, the county Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures reported. That number was up 5 percent from 2006, just ahead of the rate of overall consumer inflation.

The calamities' effects varied widely from crop to crop and from grower to grower. Avocados, whose harvest runs from December into February, were whacked early in the year by frost and again in late October by the fires, which scorched 200,000 acres in and around Fallbrook, Valley Center and Ramona. Haas avocado production fell by nearly half, to 2.7 tons per acre in 2007.

But San Diego County produces close to half of the nation's avocado crop, and the limited supplies drove up prices, by $800 per ton in the case of Haas avocados, the county reported. Owners of some undamaged groves reported incomes nearly double those of previous years.

Citrus growers took in a total of $60 million last year, also nearly double the 2006 total. Chuck Badger, a Rancho Santa Fe lemon grower who is now the president of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, said frost in early 2007 damaged very little citrus fruit in the county. Harsher frost in central and northern California wiped the entire crop for some growers there, doubling market prices for what remained.

"You hate to say bad news for them is good news for us, but that's what it is," Badger said. "And they know that."

Citrus and avocados together accounted for about 13 percent of farm revenue in San Diego County, a slice that will almost certainly fall this year amid water cutbacks, growers said.

Nurseries, meanwhile, brought in nearly $1 billion last year, according to the county. Nursery plants and flowers bring in an average of $147,000 per acre -- including $273,000 per acre for poinsettias -- compared with less than $5,000 for avocados, oranges and grapefruit. Those numbers represent revenue, not profit, and don't account for labor, water and other expenses.

With land prices having risen markedly over the last generation, many citrus groves have disappeared, and houses have grown in their place. It's rarely profitable to plant new citrus, a stark contrast to decorative nursery plants, farm bureau Director Eric Larson said.

Farms employ only about 1 percent of the county's labor force and account for a similarly small percentage of its overall economy, though farm products, like manufactured goods, tend to bring money in from outside the county.

And livestock represent just a fraction of local agricultural income. Still, it thrived last year, according to the report. Higher wholesale prices for beef, milk and eggs helped boost ranches' revenue more than 40 percent, to about $94 million, the county reported. Some egg ranchers have said this year that they're delaying plans to repair or maintain chicken houses, pending the results of a measure on November's ballot, which would effectively ban the type of cage that most of them use.


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