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Ventura County's green thumb

July 26, 2007|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Ventura County's agricultural industry reported a record $1.5 billion in gross sales last year -- up more than $238 million from the previous year.

The top crop was strawberries, with sales of $366 million, followed by nursery stock, at $263 million, and lemons, which drew $191 million.

"In all, we had 30 crops that grossed $1 million or more," said county Agricultural Commissioner W. Earl McPhail. "That's also a record for us; usually we're around 25 crops. We're very, very pleased, obviously."

McPhail credited the region's mild weather and a lack of natural disasters last year for the bumper crop.

"We had no major freezes, no major floods, no major fires during the year, so that was a big help," said McPhail, suggesting that the county would easily be among the state's top 10 agriculture-producing regions in 2006 and within the top 16 nationwide.

This was a significant achievement, he said, noting there are only 96,000 irrigated acres farmed in the county, the smallest amount of acreage of all the major agricultural counties in the state.

"If you look at the top crops we grow, we're talking about pretty high-value investments," he said. "That's the only reason we gross as much as we have, is because we're able to grow them year-round. ... We get the highest return, per acre, of any county in the state."

Other top county crops include celery, with sales of $144 million; tomatoes, $102 million; avocadoes, $87 million; raspberries, $81 million; cut flowers, $52 million; peppers, $38 million; and Valencia oranges, $19 million.

But not all the news was good.

A number of commodities saw slight declines in their sales numbers, including apiary products, such as honey and beeswax; field crops, such as alfalfa, grain and hay; parsley; both navel and Valencia oranges, and timber harvested from the Los Padres National Forest.

Growers are also recovering from destructive freezes last January that McPhail estimates will require replacement of 10% to 15% of avocado trees in the county and roughly 5% of lemon trees. County farmers lost $281 million in crops, while the state's agricultural industry suffered a total of $1.2 billion in crop losses.

But the severity of the winter cold snap hit some harder than others, said Gus Gunderson, director of southern operations for Santa Paula-based Limoneira Co., which grows about 1,450 acres of lemons in Ventura County.

This area "got through it relatively well," Gunderson said. The overall drop in the number of lemons available pushed prices up for the remaining crop, he said.

Last year "was a good, profitable year for us," Gunderson said. "We're going to have a better lemon year this year. ... But anybody who has good fruit who can get it packed will have a good year this year."

Although the county's overall crop values were up in 2006, Edgar Terry, president of Ventura-based Terry Farms Inc., which tends 1,400 acres of strawberries, bell peppers, celery and other crops, said that doesn't necessarily translate to the bottom line. He said the county figures don't take into consideration the rising cost of production.

"As far as profitability, it was a very average year; about the same as 2005," said Terry, a fourth-generation farmer. "The bulk of that [extra revenue] is being chewed up in land rent; fuel costs, which are through the roof, and labor costs."

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greg.griggs@latimes.com

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