Business

Tuesday, Aug 12 2014 05:23 PM

Kern again runner-up in state crop rankings

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Maria Hinojosa prepares grapes for packaging, which will then be placed in a box whose total weight will be 20.5 pounds, in this Aug. 6, 2013 file photo.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Francisco Ramirez wheels another load of freshly picked Crimson seedless grapes to an area in the vineyard where they will packaged and boxed in this Aug.6, 2013 file photo.

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BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

Tulare County breathed a sigh of relief Tuesday after the release of the Kern County crop report, which failed to dethrone our northern neighbor as the largest agriculture producing county in the nation.

The gross value of all Kern County agricultural products in 2013 was $6.8 billion, up 6 percent from 2012.

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That wasn't enough to topple Tulare County's $7.8 billion, which took out previous leader Fresno County, now third with $6.4 billion.

There simply wasn't enough dramatic change to shake up the rankings, said Kern County Agricultural Commissioner Ruben Arroyo.

"We were second last year. We retained our position, and we're second this year," he said.

Only cherries jumped significantly. They leaped from $25 million in 2012 to $80 million last year. That moved the crop from the county's 22nd most valuable crop to No. 12.

Most likely that was weather-related because cold temperatures ruined much of 2012's cherry crop, Arroyo said.

But most local rankings were unchanged.

Of the top five commodities in Kern County last year, all but one hold the same place when ranked by value.

For the second year in a row, grapes -- a $1.8 billion industry locally -- came in at No. 1.

They were followed by almonds and their by-products ($971 million), milk ($765 million), citrus ($642 million), and cattle and calves ($409 million).

Only cattle changed positions in the top five, moving up from No. 6 in 2012 to No. 5 last year.

"It comes down to a supply and demand issue," said Jack Lavers of Lavers Ranch in Glennville, northeast of Bakersfield.

California is in the third year of an ongoing drought that has decimated rangeland and boosted hay, corn and other animal feed prices. As a result, many ranchers have been thinning their herds, and now the scarcity is driving up prices.

"It's the exact opposite of what usually happens in a drought," Lavers said. "Usually ranchers sell off their cattle and flood the market, which pushes down prices. But that's been happening for so long now that there's not enough inventory for the high demand."

The same thing may be happening in the dairy industry.

Tulare County Agricultural Commissioner Marilyn Kinoshita attributed her county's rise to the top to improving milk prices.

"We're the No. 1 dairy county in the state, and milk prices in the past couple of years were lousy for our dairymen, but now they're at $2.40 per hundredweight," she said. "When you produce the volume that we do, just that increment shot us up $2 billion over 2012 for milk and milk products."

If it's any consolation, Kern County is still the state's largest producer of table grapes (as opposed to wine grapes), and that's unlikely to change any time soon.

"For the most part, you have multigenerational family operations in Kern County, people who really know the business," said California Table Grape Commission President Kathleen Nave.

And demand for grapes is soaring. The state produced 116.2 million box units of table grapes last year, up more than two-fold from 37.7 million in 1968, when the commission first started keeping records.

A typical box of grapes weighs about 19 pounds.

The drought may also be a factor in the planting of more permanent tree crops, as they require less water than row crops such as grains and vegetables.

But price could be a motivating force, too, because nuts are very profitable, Arroyo said.

Fruit and nut trees accounted for 422,146 harvested acres last year. They were valued at $4.1 billion in 2013, up 9 percent from $3.8 billion in 2012.

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