Ventura County agricultural production reached an all-time high of $1.16 billion in 2002, bolstering the county's position as one of the premiere farming regions in the state.
The total value of all agricultural products rose $106 million from the previous year, with strawberries again surpassing lemons as the top cash crop, according to county statistics. With 8,582 acres devoted to strawberries, the county is the second-largest producer of the fruit behind the Watsonville-Salinas area.
"We're very close to becoming a year-round strawberry producing county," said county Agricultural Commissioner Earl McPhail. "I think one of these days we'll meet our maximum in good strawberry acreage."
Strawberries, avocados and nursery fruit and nut trees all experienced large growth in their average harvests.
Lemons, grapefruit and vegetables such as beans, carrots and lettuce, however, continued to decline in production and, in some cases, revenues.
Pushed by the cultivation of plants that thrive in all seasons, strawberries strengthened their lead over lemons as the area's most lucrative crop. Gross strawberry sales reached $297.92 million in 2002, an increase of $67.22 million, or 29%, from the year before.
Recovering from a decline in 2001, the gross value of local lemons sold last year rose to $182.85 million, an increase of about $9.17 million, or 5.2%, from the year before. That was despite a drop in the amount of land devoted to the crop, down 261 acres to 23,603. Production also fell, to 371,144 tons, 119,825 fewer than in 2001.
State citrus growers say overproduction and a decrease in local demand have made lemons harder to sell and make money on at home. As countries such as Argentina and Chile continue to grow their own citrus, California lemons are also locked out of foreign markets, according to Joel Nelson, president of California Citrus Mutual, a growers trade association.
"The lemon crop has had a volatile year this year. We've got a huge crop [the decrease in production notwithstanding] and that always hurts us," he said.
In the most surprising development, raspberries edged out lettuce as the county's No. 10 crop. For the first time, the berry was placed in a separate category, a status given to crops with four or more local growers.
Only 268 acres are devoted to raspberries, but high demand, proximity to buyers and the advantage of two warm growing seasons drove the crop's average price to $20,246 a ton on gross sales of $19.96 million.
"They like to grow [raspberries] in counties fairly close to large metropolitan areas, and we're pretty much the best game in town now," McPhail said.
And berry growers are catching on. Marz Farms, which grows raspberries and strawberries across the county, plans to nearly double its raspberry production to 350 acres next year, according to Marz spokeswoman Maria Beltrain.
"We wouldn't be increasing acreage if it wasn't doing pretty good," she said.
Meanwhile, gross avocado revenues remained strong, increasing $32 million to $99.34 million in 2002.
McPhail fears that figure could tumble this year along with avocado prices, however, as the Mexican government nears an agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowing heavy importation of Hass avocados to all 50 states.
Vegetables are not the only local crops being threatened by foreign competition. Overall cut flower sales slid $11.37 million to $40.35 million, a 28.2% decrease from 2001. Flowers grown in Central and South America continue to outsell more expensive Californian varieties, McPhail said.
"When you go to Costco and buy a dozen red roses for $6.99, and it costs us $10 just to produce them, it's hard to compete," he said.
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Top 10 Ventura County crops
The total value of the county's agricultural output reached an all-time high of $1.16 billion in 2002, with strawberries again surpassing lemons as the top crop.
Individual crop values, in millions
Nursery stock: $173.69
Cut flowers: $40.35
Valencia oranges: $24.91
Source: Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner