Ag is Still King in SLO County

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

November 19, 2020

Hemp fields like this one on Los Osos Valley Road contributed to a 29% increase in the value of field crops in 2019, according to the SLO County Agriculture Department’s 2019 Crop report.

Agriculture is still king in San Luis Obispo County, according to the County Department of Agriculture’s 2019 Annual Crop Report.
Agricultural Commissioner/Sealer of Weights and Measures, Martin Settevendemie, and his crew of technicians, inspectors, office help and biologists totaling about 50 staffers oversee the Crop Report and the Ag Department.

It breaks down the different main crops grown in SLO County and their estimated market value, and once again SLO County’s sweetest crop was No. 1. But overall, agriculture production was down nearly $100 million.

“Overall crop values decreased to $979,009,000, representing a 5.5% reduction compared to our previous 2018 values,” Director Settevendemie said in a cover letter addressed to the State Secretary of Food and Agriculture, Karen Ross. “Agricultural values fluctuate from year to year based on growing conditions, market prices and demand for the various commodities grown within the County. However, the diversity of commodities grown within the county help to dampen major swings in overall value. Despite this decrease, 2019 marked the second highest year in terms of overall value for San Luis Obispo County’s agricultural producers.”

Strawberries Again No. 1

Strawberries were the No. 1 crop in SLO County once again with some $271.34 million representing 28% of the value of the county’s total agricultural output.

Wine grapes were second, but down 8%, according to Settevendemie, and totaled $254.27 million. “An oversupply of wine grapes contributed partially to the decline in value leaving some lesser quality fruit left un-harvested,” Settevendemie said.
Cattle and other food animals also fell in 2019 to $41.07M, a 15% drop from 2018. “This can be attributed,” Settevendemie said, “to lingering impacts of drought pushing ranchers to sell less cattle in an effort to rebuild herds. The number of head sold during 2019 was down 18% to 36,765.”

Even vegetables dropped 5% in value and also saw a 7% drop in acreage, which neither strawberries nor wine grapes saw.
Field crops were way up, 29% ending the year at $24.18M, with both prices and yields up, Settevendemie said. The category got a huge boost from Cannabis, as Settevendemie said after passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, industrial hemp was included in the calculations for the first time in 2019.

Nursery products — cut flowers and ornamental plants — stayed steady in comparison to previous years, coming in at $80.55M.

Top-10 Ag Products

Breaking down the Top-10 products: strawberries were No. 1 with $241.43M, some 27.73% of total output.
Wine grapes were second with $254.27M and 25.97%. Third was broccoli with $47.65M and 4.87%.
In fourth place was the Estero Bay Area’s biggest crop, avocados, at $38.87M and 3.97%. Vegetable transplants were fifth with $35.46M and 3.62%; and sixth was cattle and calves at $35.44M and 3.62%.
Cauliflower was seventh at $31.33M and 3.20%; with eighth place was cut flowers at $26.99M and 2.76%. Head lettuce was ninth at $23.42M and 2.39%; with lemons 10th at $21.37M and 2.18%.

The overall total value of the Top-10 was $786.28M of the overall output of $979M.
Settevendemie said despite the 5.5% drop from 2018, “2019 still marked the second highest annual crop value on record for San Luis Obispo County.”

Farmworker Shortage

A lack of farm laborers hurt the harvest especially with the fruits and nuts, which are heavy dependent on manual labor.
“The availability of labor and increased labor costs continued to present major challenges for growers in the area,” Settevendemie said.

The biggest gains were in the “field crops” some 29% over 2018, largely due to good prices on crops like barley and grain hay, which is used for animal feed.
Industrial hemp added largely to the growth spurt as well, and is likely to continue to be a big moneymaker, if the County Supervisors ease up on restrictions and let the industry flourish. Marijuana growing for adult use isn’t legal in SLO County for now.

Values Down but Still Strong

Agriculture has continued to be a strong part of the SLO County economy. Even during the worst of the drought years (2010-17), ag values went from $712.8M in 2010, with annual ups and downs growing to $1.03 billion in 2018 before dropping back down to last year’s $979M.

Fruits and nuts, which includes both strawberries and wine grapes, and while strawberries increased and grapes fell despite an increase in acreage, the demand is predicted to remain high and potentially increase.
Settevendemie said, “The overall decrease in wine grape value can be at least partially attributed to an oversupply of wine grapes across the state, as California has reached one of the highest ever levels of planted wine grape acreage.

“This oversupply has led to some growers, such as those operating without contracts or those with blocks of lesser quality fruit, to forego harvest.

“This may correct itself in the coming years as overall global demand for wine remains strong, and many growers across the state are retiring acreage of their low yielding or lower value varieties.”
Broccoli, cauliflower, and head lettuce fell a bit in value (5%) and acreage (7%), but remain strong among the vegetable crops accounting for nearly 50% of the overall vegetable crop values. And, “Celery saw the largest increase in year-over-year value for vegetable crops based on a significant increase in pricing, “ Settevendemie said.

Animal Products Drop Too

Animal products, which includes — aquaculture, eggs, goats, lambs, sheep, bees, bees wax, honey, milk, and pollination — as well as cattle and calves, dropped to $41.07M from $48.59M in 2018.
Much of that was in cattle, as the county had about 8,000 fewer head in 2019 than 2018, but the price was a bit higher, $135 vs. $131.

With field crops, under the category of “Miscellaneous” — that includes irrigated pastures, oats, safflower, Sudan hay, wheat, seed, grain stubble and hemp — saw the biggest leap in value going from $3.41M in 2018 to $7.04M last year.
And this was even with the number of acres in the category dropping from 9,708 in 2018 to 6,814 in 2019, perhaps indicating the value already of the hemp crops that have only recently begun to be grown.

A Plethora of Diversity

In the vegetables category and crops under “Miscellaneous” heading, gives one an indication of how diverse the agriculture industry is in SLO County.

Under miscellaneous are: anise, artichokes, arugula, basil, beans, beets, bell peppers, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, carrots, chard, chili peppers, cilantro, collards, cucumbers, daikon, dandelion, dill, endive, escarole, fennel, garlic, green onions, herbs, leeks, melons, Mizuna, mushrooms, mustard greens, Napa cabbage, onions, parsley, peas, potatoes, pumpkins, radishes, spinach, squash, sweet corn, tomato, and tomatillo.

Focusing on avocados, acreage was up a little — 4,437 in 2019 vs. 4,272 in 2018; but down in tons per acre yields — 2.884 in 2019 vs. 4.608 in 2018.

Settevendemie explained that this was likely because of the avocado’s unique feature of harvesting every other year.
Total tonnage in 2019 was 12,156 compared to 19,155 in 2018, but the price was up $3,198 per ton, vs. $2,409 in 2018.

Fruits Also Diverse

Again under “Miscellaneous,” the wealth of agriculture in SLO County also shows in fruit and nut crops — apples, apricots, Asian pears, blueberries, blackberries, Feijoas, gooseberries, grapefruit, kiwis, Mandarin oranges, navel oranges (a big crop in Cayucos), olives, passion fruit, peaches, persimmons, pistachios, pomegranates, raspberries, specialty citrus, table grapes, tangerines, Valencia oranges, and white sapote — are all grown here.

And among the wine grape varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon was No. 1 at $120.71M; “red wine” was next at $34M; and Chardonnay was No. 3 at $18.88M.

Fishing Totals Included

Commercial fishing yields were also in the Ag Report, though not included as part of the County’s Ag totals.
Fishers out of Morro Bay and Port San Luis had a decent year, with a total of $6 million coming into port covering some 99 different species of fish and shellfish.
A total of 1.69 million pounds were landed at the docks in both ports with Chinook (king) salmon No. 1 at $2.42M, and some 339,200 pounds.

Sablefish was No. 2 at $666,700 and some 317,500 pounds. Third was Dungeness crab at $572,000 and 122,800 pounds, and hagfish (slime eels) came in at $429,500 and 390,500 pounds.

Diversity Praised

Settevendemie’s report praises the diversity of the county ag industry.
“Along with the incredible abundance of agricultural production in the county,” he said, “comes a tremendous amount of crop diversity, with area growers producing nearly 120 different types of crops. Whereas some states across the country, or other counties within California, may be famous for producing a particular crop, San Luis Obispo County’s claim to agricultural fame can really be found in its diversity.

“That diversity is made possible due to the wide range of topography, soil types, and microclimates that are found within the county, and those key agronomic factors blend together in an endless number of different combinations to provide ideal growing conditions for nearly any crop imaginable.”

Pest Control Efforts

But not all of the report is wine and roses, the Ag Department is also responsible for pest control, and they were busy in 2019.
Settevendemie said, “Our inspectors routinely examine incoming commercial and private shipments of plant material, coming from all over the globe, at parcel delivery facilities, nurseries, farms, and landscape businesses. Inspectors ensure that incoming shipments meet quarantine requirements, and that the received plant material is found free from unwanted pests and diseases.”
Among the colorfully named pests the department looks out for are: Mediterranean fruit fly, Mexican fruit fly, Oriental fruit fly, Gypsy moth, Japanese beetle, light brown apple moth, European grapevine moth, European corn borer, glassy winged

sharpshooter and the brown marmorated stink bug, among several others.
The department put out 5,240 insect traps throughout the county to detect the varmints.
With thousands of traps and tens of thousands of checks of those traps the Department reportedly found 34 light brown apple moths and one Asian citrus psyllid and eradication efforts were initiated.

Weights & Measures

The department also has less-notable functions — checking the reliability and accuracy of weighing and measuring devices like produce scales in markets, and gas pumps.

They conducted a total of 5,451 inspections of “measuring devices” of which gas pumps were tops with 2,798 inspections. Water (856) and electric (805) meters were among the devices inspected along with water vending machines (129), gas vapor sub-meters (726), for an overall compliance rate of 90.2%.

The department issued 520 citations for violations and took civil administrative actions in 75 cases.

You May Also Like…

Election Season Now Open

Election Season Now Open

Just as deer-hunting season opens and closes on specific dates and certain times, it’s officially election season for...