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California farms are looking greener than ever

With prices for many crops near all-time highs, farm income is expected to post strong gains this year. That makes the agriculture sector a rare bright spot in the state's economy.

November 23, 2011|By Diana Marcum, Los Angeles Times
  • California farmers are finishing up harvesting 454,500 acres of cotton, almost 50% more acreage than last year.
California farmers are finishing up harvesting 454,500 acres of cotton,… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Fresno — As Californians savor their Thanksgiving feasts, the states' farmers are especially thankful. California's agriculture sector is on track for a record year, a rare bright spot in the state's economy.

Prices for cotton, grapes and other crops are near all-time highs. Foreign buyers are gobbling California almonds, grapes, citrus and dairy products. Agricultural exports through September are up 16% over the same period last year. Net farm income is projected to post strong gains in 2011 after nearly doubling over the previous decade.

At a time when other Golden State industries are struggling, times are good down on the farm. Just ask Steve Moore.

The Fresno County pistachio farmer recently completed the harvest on his 480-acre spread near Huron, part of what's estimated to be California's second-largest pistachio crop ever. Prices are strong, at around $2.10 a pound, driven by growing demand in places including China and Israel.

Moore started with 160 acres in 1982, planting trees that take seven years to produce. "Looking at those bare sticks in the ground, I thought I must be nuts," he said. But the crop is so lucrative he's looking to expand again.

Indeed, prices for all manner of farm products are so high that Vernon Crowder, an agricultural economist with Rabobank, a major agricultural lender, has been seeing some unfamiliar faces at industry events.

"When you go to ag conferences you now have venture capitalists hanging around," he said. "But they find it very difficult to beat out another farmer for land, and that shows you how strong the market is. There's been a fundamental shift as the global market demands more food and more expensive food."

That's good news for California, the nation's leading agricultural state and the fifth-largest producer worldwide. In contrast with the grain-and-livestock focused Midwest, California farmers cultivate more than 400 commodities, including more than half of the nation's fruits and vegetables.

Looking for artichokes? Dates? Kiwi? Pomegranates? California accounts for more than 99% of the U.S. production of each of those crops, according to the California Food and Agriculture Department.

"You ask the average person what California does better than any other place in the world, where we have the most innovation and natural advantage and they'll probably say Hollywood or high-tech. But, it's farming," said Stuart Woolf, president of Woolf Farming & Processing, with cotton and tomato fields near Huron.

"Bakersfield to Sacramento is like a giant greenhouse with really good soil," he said. "The big picture is that we are going to be perpetually stretching our resources as California feeds more people around the globe."

The world's population just hit 7 billion, and emerging middle classes in countries such as India and China are putting more on their plates. California farmers, always looking for new markets, are finely attuned to shifting economies and tastes worldwide. Pistachios are a perfect example of such entrepreneurial farming.

California is now the world's top producer, knocking off longtime leader Iran three years ago. This year the state's crop is expected to be more than 460 million pounds, but 30 years ago the crop barely existed here.

Then came the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, which led to a ban on imports from Iran, a major supplier to the U.S. market. Some Central Valley farmers saw an opportunity. They gambled on planting pistachio trees.

Innovation followed.

Iranian pistachios traditionally are dyed a distinctive red to cover blemishes left by bits of the hull sticking to the outer shell. California researchers found a way to remove the outer hulls, leaving the tan shells smooth and flawless.

Soon California pistachios were favored by consumers worldwide. The 2010 crop — a record 522 million pounds — was worth $1.16 billion.

In the Central Valley, which grows about 95% of the nation's pistachios, the crop is expected to nearly double by 2017 as more trees mature.

"That's a huge increase. But we think we'll be able to create demand ahead of production," said Richard Matoian, executive director of American Pistachio Growers in Fresno.

Moore, the pistachio farmer, is willing to roll the dice. He's looking to add more trees. "It's a moon shot – a trajectory of seven years. You water, you fertilize, you keep the critters away, and you hope and you pray the demand grows as your trees grow," he said.

The country's largest pistachio farm, Paramount Farms, is capitalizing on Hollywood glitz to build a bigger domestic market.

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