The Santa Clara County Division of Agriculture released its 2011 Agricultural Crop Report Tuesday, revealing a 7 percent decrease in the gross value of agricultural production.
That pattern however, is consistent with the county’s gross valuations in the last 10 years, according to Agricultural Commissioner Kevin O’Day. Of the 58 counties in California, Santa Clara ranks around No. 25 in terms of gross valuation of agricultural products, he said.
Echoing a handful of area farmers who underscored 2011 as “very rough,” O’Day affirmed rainy weather patterns and labor shortages made last year somewhat “unusual.” The gross value of the county’s agricultural production is down by $18.4 million – dropping from $266 million in 2010 to $247.7 million in 2011.
“When labor is short, that oftentimes will dictate or motivate growers to plant certain crops that don’t require a lot of labor,” O’Day noted. “Ag employment is always challenging, and immigration national policies come into play at the local level.”
Third-generation Gilroy pepper grower Dan Fiorio – who in 2011 lost nearly 700 tons of peppers from his other 100-acre farm in Brentwood - experienced firsthand last year’s shrinking pool of hands-for-hire. The ongoing reality stems from a major crackdown on illegal immigration, with a record-high 400,000 illegal immigrants deported by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2011.
“I have talked to some growers that are considering cutting back, just because of the labor,” said Fiorio. “It’s getting progressively more difficult to get enough labor to harvest the crops. Most growers at this point are waiting to see how this year is going to play out.”
One thing remains consistent in the last decade. The county’s top three crops continue to be to be nursery crops ($86.4 million annual gross value), mushrooms ($61.5 million) and bell peppers ($11.3 million).
Nursery crops, for example, include items such as bedding plants, ornamental indoor/outdoor trees, roses, shrubs, Christmas trees, turf, vegetable plants and landscaping material (does not include cut flowers). O’Day says this category is a top crop due to consistent demand for landscaping materials, and the fact commercial production nurseries have a very high value per-acre and don’t require as much land to operate.
A new face among Santa Clara County’s fungi-growing population is Jennifer Le, 23, who along with her family recently began sowing and selling tree oysters (a meaty, flavorful, protein-rich type of mushroom) from their Horizon Nursery off Masten Avenue in Gilroy. Le agrees the business is tough work – but she’s proud of her product.
“I feel like things are coming together,” said Le, whose clientele has grown to seven farmers’ markets and six restaurants in the South County and Bay Area. “We’re about the quality, instead of abundance. My oyster mushrooms are amazing. They’re so delicious.”
Le joins an already robust fabric of South County mushroom growers, which includes the South Valley Mushroom Farm on Diana Avenue in Morgan Hill, Royal Oaks Mushrooms in Morgan Hill – which produces 4 million pounds of mushrooms per year – and Monterey Mushrooms, which is headquartered in Watsonville, has a production office in Morgan Hill and is the country’s largest marketer of fresh mushrooms.
The crop report also shows that livestock ranchers and hay growers are steadily benefiting from rising market prices. The value of beef cattle and grain hay (used to feed livestock, etc.) rose by 30 and 35 percent since 2009.
Beef cattle are in high demand following recent severe droughts in Texas and the Midwest. Rain shortages dragged the country’s total bovine population to what it was in the 1950s, according to Kyle Wolfe, a local Gilroy rancher and president of the Santa Clara County Cattleman’s Association. Wolfe hopes the value of beef cattle will continue to climb and catch up with normal ranching operating costs; something Wolfe says is already inflated due to the recession and high diesel prices.
Row crop farmers such as Fiorio – who planted about 40 acres of hay this year as a rotation crop – also stood to benefit in a year where alfalfa and hay prices hit an all-time high due to production shortages. While the market became slightly flooded with other farmers who took advantage of the demand, “we sold hay for anywhere from $10 to $12 a bale, which is pretty good,” said Fiorio. “In the past, it was $7 or $8.”
Other crops didn’t fare so well, thanks to late spring rains and unseasonably cool temperatures in 2011. Downpours during cherry harvest caused a whopping 53 percent decrease in yield-per-acre, compared with the 2010 cherry crop. Santa Clara County is teeming with more than 900 cherry orchards – but only 476 acres of cherries were harvested in 2011.
Fortunately, Ralph Santos of El Camino Packing – which owns Ralph’s Cherry Hut in Gilroy – says 2012 is looking more like a bowl of cherries (at least, compared to last year).
Aside from the labor pinch – something Santos also encountered – “overall, this was a better year,” he said. “We got to harvest our cherries, the returns were better and the rains didn’t effect us.”
It’s a rosier picture from 2011, when Santos was able to salvage just 25 percent of what he picked after an unfavorably heavy rain season pounded his orchards. Gilroy’s seasonal rain totals stood at 23.78 inches, well over the city’s 17.63 average.
Looking ahead, O’Day would like to see more opportunities for consumers to purchase Santa Clara County-grown goods.
Of the 33 farmers’ markets in Santa Clara County, for example, O’Day pointed out that “many” of the farmers selling produce at those markets don’t actually come from Santa Clara County.
“We’re working to change that,” he said.
Encouraging shoppers to ask for and prefer local produce is catalyst in creating a market that, in turn, makes it worthwhile for farmers to cater to the demand, O’Day explained.
In turn, “you’re supporting local agriculture, you’re supporting local open space, local farmlands and all of the benefits that come with that,” he said.
O’Day mentioned that county officials are also looking into marketing initiatives and branding strategies that help shoppers identify locally grown produce. In a county where the agricultural pickings are as colorful and varied as a 64-count box of Crayola Crayons, “the diversity is really surprising,” said O’Day, who pointed out the soil, climate and landscape of Santa Clara County allows farmers to grow almost anything except cotton. “I think it presents that opportunity for branding. That’s where the future lies.”