Good numbers in 2020 crop report

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By Craig W. Anderson

San Joaquin County’s agriculture powered past the 2020 COVID pandemic by producing an agricultural production gross value of more than $3.1 billion, a 15.9% increase over the 2019 value of $2.6 billion.

The county’s 3,430 farms on 772,762 acres of farmland were the primary contributors to that commodity production and the 87th Annual Crop Report provides information on multiple crops that, despite trying circumstances, showed substantial gains in 2020, according to San Joaquin County’s Agricultural Commissioner Tim Pelican.

He said vegetable crops rose 13.75%, livestock and poultry products rose 15.24%, seed crops grew 24.66%, nursery production value increased 14.46% and apiary buzzed up 28.58%.

Pelican noted that 2019 “was probably the last year asparagus would ever appear in an Annual Crop Report as there are currently very few bearing acres in the county.”

Here are the Top Ten crops with six improving and four not:

Almonds – $694,031,000 – Increased from $449,621,000;

Milk – $439,824,000 – Increasedfrom $378,840,000;

Grapes – $340,913,000 – Grapes (all) declined from $372,467,000;

Walnuts – $221,926,000 – Declined from $290,335,000;

Cherries – $186,512,000 – Increased from $88,104,000;

Eggs, Chickens – $181,649,000 – Increased from $160,330,000;

Cattle and Calves – $109,354,000 – Increased from 102,616,000;

Tomatoes – $61,473,000 – Declined from $88,392,000;

Blueberries – $59,118,000 – Declined from $609,957,000

Hay, all – $57,158,000 – Increased from $56,100,000

“Two main crops led the way in 2020,” Pelican said. “Almonds had a bumper crop with 2,000 new acres coming into production, but prices were down. There was no rain to affect cherries and it, too, was a good crop.”

“Fruit and nut crops saw an increase of 18.38% and continued to be the largest in total value at $1.6 billion because of an increase in overall pricing of commodities like cherries – up by 111% and pistachios 43.62%,” Pelican said. “Almonds remain our No. 1 commodity that increased by 54.35% primarily due to a record yield and an increase in bearing acres.”

About No. 1 almonds, Dave Phippen, almond grower and packer of Travaille & Phippen in Ripon, said, “The 2020 almond crop was the largest in 15 to 20 years on a per acre basis. “This was our first three billion pound crop. Because it was so big the sale price per unit was estimated to be 25% to 30% lower per unit than the previous year’s crop.” A case of supply exceeding demand.

Phippen said growers are asking: Will we have to sell so cheaply again? Phippen answered his own question: “Prices should be higher so we’ll probably get back some of that 20% to 30% it’s estimated we lost.”

About second ranked milk, Pelican said, “There was virtually no packaged milk that was usually part of restaurant menus and school lunch programs due to the lockdowns of businesses and schools.” He said that processed milk products – cheese and others – had a per 100 cwt. price increase.

Dairy farmer Jack Hamm said the 2020 market appeared to be reasonably stable and profitable “in terms of milk income, but it was very volatile.”

The April market was tough for everyone and people had to dump milk as cheese prices were down but when June arrived “it opened a little bit for people who sold milk for cheese processing. But butter, powdered milk and fluid milk didn’t rebound. Prices fell because of school and other institutional closures. There was less consumption. The government programs kept changing and prices would go up and down accordingly”

Dairy workers received safety training and Hamm considered them fortunate overall due to low outdoor COVID transmission rates and he credited Agricultural Commissioner Pelican for making masks available to the industry.

After No. 3 grapes, No. 4 walnuts garnered a comment from grower Jim Ferrari of Linden. “Production was up but prices went down and input costs increased,” he said.

The estimates for the 2021 crop are good and Ferrari is “cautiously optimistic but bracing in case of bad news.” He added that shipping walnuts around the country and to the export markets is suffering because a high number of ships are stalled in ports, container prices have more than doubled, fuel costs are up and there is a cardboard shortage for walnut boxes and a labor shortage. Truck drivers are also at a premium; all of this could add more than 50-cents to a pound of walnuts this year.

A light rain near harvest end had little adverse effect on No.5 cherries which turned out to be light but with good prices, said Jake Samuel, Linden farmer and custom harvester. “The crop had good size and quality and turned out about 7 million packages. It wasn’t a bumper crop but it was good on average, in an interesting year.”

Harvesting, packing and shipping comprised the major inputs. However, export shipping was nearly non-existent due to the ports being closed and, said Samuel, “There were a lot of unknowns throughout the various portions of the 2020 cherry season.”

No. 7 Cattle and Calves grabbed the attention of Kenny Watkins, Linden diversified farmer and cattle rancher. “Getting supplies and parts was challenging which caused our day-to-day operations to slow down. Spreading our crew to meet social distancing mandates created slowdowns in all aspects of our business.”

He said meat market returns were “horrible” and the closure of packing plants forced cattlemen to downsize because “the returns weren’t viable in supplementing their feed needs. Because five packers control 85% of the cattle business nationwide, most of the share went into the packer’s pocket but not at the producer’s level.”

Watkins said the closure of the Farm Service Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service along with other informational events due to COVID mandates, resulted in farmers, cattlemen and others from different ag sectors “being unable to get or share information about COVID relief grants or informational guidelines to solve problems.”