The total gross value of Kern County’s agricultural products fell by 9 percent last year, but the dip came after five solid years of increases, the Kern County Agricultural Commissioner’s office said Monday in its annual crop report.
In 2015, all agricultural commodities produced in Kern were worth about $6.87 billion, a significant decrease compared to the 2014 crop value of $7.55 billion.
A portion of that decrease can be attributed to California’s extended drought, said Kern County Agricultural Commissioner Ruben J. Arroyo.
But a big chunk — nearly half of the $674,000 difference from 2014 — came in falling milk prices, down 30 percent in 2015 compared to the previous year.
“This is a common theme,” Arroyo said of falling overall crop values. “I believe Tulare County and Fresno County were both down.”
Kern’s top five commodities in 2015 were grapes, almonds, citrus, milk and cattle & calves, which made up more than two-thirds of the total value.
Despite the drop in gross value, last year’s dip should be taken in a broader historical context.
In 2009, Kern’s total crop value was $3.6 billion. The next year the value began to climb, and it continued to shoot upward, more than doubling by 2014. At least three of those years were critical drought years.
How did Kern County’s crop values steadily increase, even during those years of severe drought?
“As far as Kern County is concerned, we have the most effective use of our groundwater basin over anybody in the state,” Arroyo said. “Remember, in Tulare County we saw wells going dry. It’s different here in Kern when you’re talking about water.”
But groundwater has its limits. Even in Kern County.
“You can’t keep pumping forever,” the ag commissioner said.
One point to keep in mind, he noted, is the gross commodity values listed in the annual crop reports have nothing to do with profits for farmers.
When the cost of water — or any other cost of doing business — goes up, it cuts into net profits for growers.
One thing is certain: the trend toward permanent crops such as grapes, almonds and pistachios has transformed ag in Kern.
While cotton was once king, fruit and nut crops now dominate. Between 2014 and 2015, harvested acres of these commodities actually increased, despite the drought, from 510,000 to 525,000 acres.
Should the drought continue this winter, growers will likely have some hard choices. In fact they’re already making those choices, Arroyo said.
“The industry is deciding what not to plant,” he said.