Ag value up but there’s more to the story

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By Vicky Boyd

Despite the prolonged drought and last summer’s late heat wave, the county’s overall gross agricultural production value grew to more than $3.24 billion in 2022, a 1.6% increase from 2021.

According to the recently released 2022 San Joaquin County crop report, the value of some crops, such as walnuts, suffered from decreases in quality due to the heat and overall market doldrums. But others, such as hay and corn silage, benefited from drought-induced supply reductions that spurred price increases and higher overall values.

What the crop report doesn’t show is that farmers’ profits have not kept up with inflation and their margins continue to shrink, say San Joaquin Farm Bureau leaders.

“We get a 1.6% increase in our values compared to a 40% raise for the UAW (United Auto Workers) or $20 for every fast-food employee, which is a 30% increase,” said SJFB First Vice President Les Strojan, who produces cattle and hay with his son near Farmington. “Farmers are not getting paid for the food they’re producing. You can’t just look at it from a general standpoint in the crop report. There are a lot of farmers hurting.”

SJFB President Andrew Watkins agreed, saying the 1.6% increase in crop value doesn’t begin to make up for double-digit increases in production costs farmers have seen. After the winter rains, he said that the price of several crops that had been experiencing higher values dropped dramatically.

“I hear the guys with silage corn can’t give it away,” said Watkins, who produces cattle, forage crops and walnuts with his brother near Linden. “It’s all reversed, so the hay isn’t worth anything in 2023.”

The story Watkins said isn’t being told is about the Williamson Act and how it was designed to tie property taxes to income generated from that land. In the case of walnuts, for example, he said orchard property taxes should be reduced because of the dismal walnut market and decreased income.

Farm-to-fork theme

San Joaquin County Agricultural Commissioner Kamal Bagri highlighted the region’s agricultural production as well as other department activities during her recent 2022 annual crop report presentation to the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors. She was joined by Israel Arambula, a county agricultural biologist who helped compile the report, now in its 89th year.

The year’s theme, farm to fork, spotlights a way of life, Bagri said. “We have 3,430 farmers and we grow over 150 different commodities. Our diverse crops are what make us very unique in the state of California.”

In trying to shorten the connection between farms and consumers, the county has nine certified farmers markets. An edible schoolyard project provides educational field trips to help students learn the relationship between food production and consumption, and the annual Feast at the Fox in downtown Stockton bridges agriculture and the consumer with a feast created from locally sourced ag products. The dinner also provides first-hand experience for students in San Joaquin Delta College’s culinary arts program.

Bagri said she wasn’t surprised by the 1.6% increase in gross production in 2022 and said it was in line with what her counterparts in neighboring counties found.

“We knew that because of milk prices being so high that we were going to see a big jump,” she said. “And we already knew that walnuts and almonds were not doing well. We looked at these numbers and checked them because we wanted to make sure we were presenting the right data. We also called processors and big players in the industry.

“The surprising part is that the numbers still look OK even though the growers are not seeing farming as a profitable business. That’s what we’re trying to make people understand. The crop report doesn’t look at input costs, which were very high.”

In the 2022 report, milk once again regained the top crop title with $626 million, a 41% increase from 2021 due to price increases under the Federal Milk Marketing Orders, Arambula said.

Grapes maintained their second-place spot with $421 million or 2% lower than 2021. Almonds, which had led the list in 2021, dropped to third place with $397 million or 12% lower than 2021.

Rounding out the 2022 Top 10 Crops were:

4. Cherries: $279,998,000, or 13% lower than 2021.

5. Eggs, chicken all: $174,580,000, or 16% lower than 2021.

6. Walnuts: $145,997,000, or 60% lower than 2021.

7. Cattle and calves: $128,954,000, or 16% higher than 2021.

8. Tomatoes, all: $114,174,000, or 60% higher than 2021 due partly to more planted acreage.

9. Hay, all: $113,322,000, or 65% higher than 2021.

10. Corn silage: $88,286,000, or 66% higher than 2021.

Almonds slip from No. 1

Dave Phippen, a partner in Manteca-based grower-packer-shipper Travaille & Phippen, attributed the drop in almond value to overall lower grower prices that hovered around $1.50 per pound. He pointed to an 800-million-pound estimated carryin for the 2022-23 marketing year for a lingering oversupply.

“We shipped 2.6 billion pounds, but that 800-million-pound carryover is still there and still haunting us,” Phippen said. “Until we can get out from under the cloud of that carryover, we will continue to suffer from low almond prices.”

The large carryover actually started during the pandemic, when transportation issues caused almond exports to back up at ports. Container availability and shipments at ports have returned to pre-pandemic conditions, and Phippen said almond exports have continued to do better than domestic sales. About 70% of the California almond crop is exported.

Inflation also has affected how U.S. consumers grocery shop, prompting many to only buy necessities and sadly forego other purchases, such as almonds, he said. Others may purchase smaller container sizes, resulting in less volume sold.

Like other farmers, Phippen said the crop report only spotlights gross crop receipts and doesn’t look at input costs, which have continued to “go through the roof.”

It currently costs about $3,400 to $3,500 per acre to grow almonds, he said. Using a state-average yield of 1,880 pounds per acre and a price of $1.50 per meat pound, almond growers only net about $2,820 per acre.

“It just doesn’t cover the production costs,” Phippen said.