Ag woes have big impact on San Joaquin Valley economy

FRESNO, Calif. — Agriculture may seem small when compared to the entire California economy. But it’s the lifeblood of commerce in the San Joaquin Valley, which has long led the nation in agricultural production.

Last year’s $2.2 billion hit to the state’s $45 billion ag industry appears minuscule compared with the $2 trillion state economy, said Jay Lund, a University of California-Davis engineering professor whose Center for Watershed Sciences has been studying drought-related impacts to agriculture.

Daniel Sumner, a UC-Davis ag economist whose study last year credited almonds for directly and indirectly contributing $21.5 billion to the state’s economy, agrees.

“Statewide, agriculture is 2 percent of the state’s economy,” Sumner said. “That’s the number, and if agriculture is cut 10 percent, that’s two-tenths of 1 percent (of the economy).”

But, he adds, “…That doesn’t mean it’s tiny.”

The impact is much larger in the San Joaquin Valley, where agriculture is king. The valley alone accounted for more than 37 percent of ag production and processing statewide in 2009, according to California State University-Fresno’s Center for Irrigation Technology. The added value of ag production and processing in the valley that year was $16 billion, or 13.4 percent of the value added in the regional economy, the center estimated.

In some communities in western Fresno County, a lack of ag-related jobs because of fallowed acres has led to an unemployment rate of nearly 40 percent.

Producer groups such as California Citrus Mutual bristle at the 2 percent figure, arguing it only scratches the surface in terms of the importance of ag in the Golden State. Agricultural products were one of California’s top exports in 2013, totaling $21.2 billion in value, according to the state Department of Food and Agriculture.

And as California agriculture goes, so goes the nation. California is the country’s largest agricultural producer and exporter, with its $46.7 billion in agricultural output in 2013 contributing 17 percent of the total U.S. ag output valued at $269.1 billion, the Farm Water Coalition notes.

California agriculture itself is larger than the economies of South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Vermont, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Nine of the nation’s top 10 agricultural counties are in California, with Fresno County’s nearly $5 billion in value of agricultural products sold topping those in 23 states, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture.

The economic ramifications are a concern to the state Board of Food and Agriculture, which on May 5 invited farmers, ranchers, community leaders and others to a forum at the Fresno County Fairgrounds to discuss their difficulties.

“As a farmer, I’ve pretty much been pumping from the aquifer for the last 24 months,” said board president Craig McNamara, who grows 450 acres of organic walnuts and a small amount of olives for oil in Winters, Calif., northwest of Sacramento. “That’s atypical.

“In my 40 years of farming, we’ve never been as challenged as we are today,” McNamara said. “Opportunities are still present in California. … It’s farmers, leaders, all 39 million of us. We’re going to have to compromise to achieve a robust future. I’m confident we can do it.”

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