As news settled in Wednesday that Kern had apparently lost its title as the nation's top-grossing agricultural producer, people whose jobs it is to track these things sifted through the official reports to figure out what had changed, and specifically, why Fresno County had suddenly broken Kern's two-year winning streak.
Some of what they found was notable but not surprising: The wider diversity of Fresno's crops played a role in the new rankings, as did the price difference between table grapes grown in Kern and higher-value raisin grapes grown in Fresno County. But they also discovered something that didn't seem to make sense.
In the 2018 Kern County Crop Report released Tuesday, the price of a ton of fresh onions was listed as $230 per ton, and $128 per ton for dehydrator onions. But in Fresno County, all onions were listed at $830 per ton.
Could it really be that onions grown in Fresno County were worth three to six times more than onions grown in Kern?
No, actually. The difference was an accounting procedure introduced this year by the Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner's Office.
Instead of asking farmers how much money they made from growing onions, the office said it decided for the first time this year to ask how much the onions were worth to the companies that were contracting farmers to grow the onions. In other words, the county switched from counting farmers' actual sales receipts to estimating how much their customers' receipts would be.
"That threw me for a big loop," said Roland Fumasi, senior fruit, vegetable and tree nut analyst at Rabo Agrifinance, who noticed the price difference Wednesday while poring over the two counties' crop reports.
Cerise Montanio noticed it, too, not just in onion prices but also in garlic prices, which were listed at $1,580 per ton in Kern but $2,136 in Fresno County. That's a difference of 35 percent.
Montanio, deputy director of the Kern County Ag Commissioner’s Office, said she didn't want to throw shade on her colleagues up north but noted the price discrepancy could be very significant.
"If they (Fresno County) had stayed on status quo similar to our (price) numbers, that major increase would not be there and we would still hold the No. 1 (total crop) value,” Montanio said.
Or not. While it's unclear how many Fresno County crops were listed at the contract price rather than the crop's estimated value, the difference between the onion and garlic prices weren't enough to bridge the gap between the two counties' total crop values.
Fresno County's total 2018 crop value, according to its annual report, was about $7.89 billion, or $421 million more than Kern's total. If all of Kern's onions and garlic had been valued at the same price as Fresno County's were, the difference would come to $251 million — not quite enough to put Kern back on top.
If county ag rankings seem a petty matter to outsiders, they're not. In economic development circles, Kern regularly touts its supremacy in ag as well as oil.
It's also a distinction that's not lost on local farmers.
"It’s obviously a point of pride," Bakersfield-area farmer Steve Murray said. "When you’re the largest county in California, you’re the largest county in the world.”
For the record, Tulare County, another top-three ag producer, has not yet released its 2018 crop report.
Fresno County Ag Commissioner Melissa Cregan said it was not her intention to boost her county's crop values by changing its price-estimate procedures.
Her office reached out to farmers and asked them to stop providing the contract price and instead put down the total value of the crop.
"I don't have a problem with that," she said. "I think reporting the actual value of the crop is what we should be doing. I don't think we’ve done anything inappropriate."
"These are supposed to be gross values," Cregan added, referring to the crop's wholesale value without subtracting labor, transportation and other expenses. "They’re not net values."
Montanio said Kern has nothing to be ashamed about. The county's total crop value increased 3 percent year over year, as compared with Fresno's 12 percent jump, which took into account the new accounting method.
"We’re just very proud that we’ve been successful in increasing our agricultural value this year,” she said. "We’re very confident that we’ll be back in the No. 1 ranking" later, she added.