Almonds finally overtook grapes as Kern County's most valuable crop, according to a new report that contained a few surprises pointing to fundamental shifts in local farming.
Not only did the tree nuts move past their perennial No. 2 ranking, but industrial hemp debuted at the 14th spot while cotton — "king cotton" as it was long known in the county — failed to make the top-20 list for perhaps the first time.
"Rehabilitated cotton growers have now planted almonds,” joked Kent Stenderup, an Arvin grower serving as chairman of the Almond Board of California.
The 2019 Kern County Crop Report released Tuesday detailed a 2 percent increase in gross sales, which examines farmer revenues as opposed to retail prices. It built on the 2018 crop report, which showed a 3 percent sales jump from the year before.
Last year's overall sales increase belies a sales decline for most of Kern's leading crops. There were four crops that surpassed the $1 billion sales mark in 2018, but only two that did so in 2019: almonds and grapes.
Pistachios and citrus traded places in the sales ranking last year, leaving citrus on top as pistachios went through what the industry calls an alternating "off year."
The U.S. pistachio crop declined by about a quarter in 2019, said Richard Matoian, executive director of the American Pistachio Growers trade group. By that standard, Kern's 22 percent sales drop to $886 million "actually beat the averages," he said.
At the same time, pistachios were the county's only crop among 2019's top four that reported a more than 2 percent increase in acreage. The amount of land devoted to grapes declined in Kern by 5 percent and the amount of almond acreage shrank by about one-tenth of 1 percent.
Delano-area almond grower Matt Billings noted that despite last year's contraction, a lot more land has been turned into orchards for growing the nut during about the last two decades.
But because of a price drop earlier this year, he added, the crop may be somewhat less attractive to farmers than it had been. On the other hand, he sees lower prices pushing consumer demand higher, which could be a good thing over the long term.
"There will be more demand and so prices will go up,” Billings said.
Kathleen Nave, president of the California Table Grape Commission, interpreted grapes sales decline as a reflection of 2018's jump in production. She noted that 2019 yielded the smallest grape crop in seven years.
It's worth noting grape sales declined only 6 percent to $1.4 billion while almond sales rose 33 percent.
The new report may be the first time hemp has showed up on Kern's annual crop report.
The plant, which is essentially the same as marijuana without the psychoactive ingredients, has become popular in recent years as a source of cannabidiol, or CBD, a kind of modern cure-all. Booming sales have attracted local and out-of-town investors.
In 2019, the report says, farmers in the county took in $80.5 million from the sale of hemp. No further details were available as the plant was grouped with other field crops.
County records show cotton sales in Kern last year came to $28.8 million, a 46 percent drop from 2018.