There was some very good news in the county’s just-released 2011 Crop Statistics and Annual Report.
Avocado growers realized a 42 percent increase in the cash value of their crops last year compared with 2010, thanks to rising prices for the popular fruit masquerading as a vegetable.
The value of the crop was $208 million in 2011, compared to $147 million in 2010.
Eric Larson, executive director of the nonprofit San Diego County Farm Bureau, said avocado growers got higher prices from grocers.
“Last year we saw a dramatic bump in price,” he said. “Some growers received as much as $2 a pound, when in previous years the averages were more like 75 cents to $1 per pound.”
The kernel of good news was contained in the annual report from the county’s Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures.
Overall, the total cash value of the county’s agricultural production increased 2 percent in 2011 over 2010, jumping to $1.68 billion.
The value increased despite a 1 percent drop in acreage devoted to farming, attributable to avocado farmers taking trees out of production due to high water costs.
The county depends on irrigation using water from outside of the region, said Larson.
“It makes it hard to compete with foreign fruit, or fruit from places like Ventura County, where the price of water is much less,” he said.
For now, Larson said consumer demand is helping to offset lower production.
“California avocados are really popular right now,” he said. “When they’re in short supply, buyers really jump on them and pay more.”
The Lamb-Hass avocado variety saw the biggest increase in value posting an 87 percent increase, according to the report.
Sandy Parks, assistant director for the county’s Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures, agreed with Larson that the value of the avocado crop goes up or down in relation to the size of the crop each year.
“When there is less production, the money goes up,” she said. “When there is more production, the money goes down. It’s been that way for years.”
The county has about 300,000 acres in some kind of farm production, and the industry is considered as important as biotech, defense and manufacturing.
In fact, the report notes that the county has 6,687 farms, more than any other county in the U.S. And more than a quarter of those farms are run by women.
What’s more, San Diego generates the highest dollar value per acre at $450,000 of any county in California.
More than 43 crops are tracked in the report.
Meanwhile, Parks said that the ornamental trees and shrubs category remained the No. 1 crop for the third straight year.
The total value for all nursery products (including cut flowers and foliage) stayed above the $1 billion dollar mark at $1.1 billion, she said.
“I find it so amazing that ornamentals have stayed so high,” the Farm Bureau’s Larson said. “Folks in tough economic times don’t have to buy those products, but, nonetheless, they continue to do so.”
He said the slight increase was attributable to the fact that big-box retailers, such as Home Depot, Lowe’s and Walmart, have muscled into retail plant sales at the expense of independent nurseries.
“They’re controlling a lot of the business these days,” he said.
He said he was surprised that the cash value of ornamental trees and shrubs has held up so well in the depressed economy.
Overall, he said agriculture accounts for about $5 billion of the county’s $75 billion yearly economy. He said officials use a multiplier effect of 3.5 to determine the numbers, and includes such things as farm payroll and purchases for supplies and equipment.
“It’s still very robust here,” Larson said of the county’s farm scene. “We hit a billion dollars in sales back in 1995, and we’ve had sustained growth almost every year since.”
“To be sure, 2 percent is very modest,” he said, pointing to the slight overall gain in the monetary value of the crops. “But we’re not moving backward like a lot of industries have,” he said, noting that the increasing interest in locally grown produce and other products is helping to boost the value of the entire sector.
“People are looking for niche products they can sell in local markets,” he said, pointing to wine grapes as a new crop making headway in the county. “I am not saying it’s moving the needle just yet, but over time, it will be one of the ways to help sustain agriculture here.”