Monday, April 14, 2008

Berries save the day


For the second year in a row, agriculture in Santa Barbara County broke the $1 billion mark with strawberries topping the list as the No. 1 cash crop, according to a county agricultural production report released yesterday.
The 2007 statistics indicate the agriculture industry saw an $87.3 million increase in value over 2006 despite losing tens of millions in crops to heavy winds and frost early in the year. Last year’s total topped $1.1 billion compared to just over $1 billion in 2006.

One of the crops expected to suffer from the frost was strawberries, which County Agricultural Commissioner William Gillette said did an about face and rallied for an $80 million increase over 2006 and accounted for the bulk majority of last year’s jump.
“If you had to say one world to sum up the crop year you’d have to say strawberries,” Gillette said. “It was kind of the perfect storm for strawberries.”
That perfect storm was the combination of high yields and high prices, he said, which allowed strawberries to dominate the top money spot with $313.5 million — $182.4 million more than broccoli, the No. 2 crop.
Gillette said strawberries were one of the few products that took a noticeable jump in planted acreage, with about 400 more harvested acres in 2007. He also said a number of new strawberry varieties have increased the growing season by nearly five months and accommodate higher yields.
While strawberries seemed to make it through the tenuous year relatively unscathed, the numbers tell an entirely different story for avocados, which dropped from the No. 6 spot in 2006 with a value of $40.2 million, to No. 10 in 2007 with $20.8 million.
Gillette said a violent windstorm at the end of 2006 was the culprit behind the $20 million discrepancy.
“It was a real tough year for avocado owners,” he said.
A freeze at the beginning of 2007 caused an additional $20 million in damage to various crops. Minus these two weather events, Gillette said if prices had been high throughout the year, 2007 could have seen a $120 million increase over 2006.
The impact of last year’s weather on local agriculture is apparent before opening the report, which has images of destroyed greenhouses, frost damaged trees and smoke billowing over the hills from the Zaca Fire on its cover.
Wine grapes held onto the No. 3 spot with $99.9 million, which is $7.4 million less than in 2006. Part of this decrease is due to lower yields, which dropped from 4.43 tons per acre in 2006 to 3.35 tons in 2007.
Gillette said wine grapes are one of several products that either decreased in value or remained stagnant in 2007 — a fact that concerns him slightly because the cost of gasoline and other business expenses are continuing to climb.
Accounting for the vast majority of the county’s crop value were fruit and nut crops, which brought in the largest chunk of change at $450 million, and vegetables, which racked up $418 million. The next largest category was nursery products at $176 million.
Broccoli was the star of the vegetable category at $131 million while head lettuce came in at No. 2 at nearly $88 million.
The majority of nursery crops detailed in the report are flowers, which Gillette said sustained minor damage from ash that fell during the Zaca Fire. He said the ash dusted the leaves of the flowers and when combined with dew, the petals became discolored and as a result, the price dropped.
Gerbera, a flower that originates from the sunflower family, was the money leader from nursery products with $23.5 million. The lily was next in line with $15.2 million, a $3 million decrease from 2006.
Livestock and poultry took a $2 million dive with $24.8 million in 2007 compared to $26.6 million in 2006.
Gillette said much of the county’s success in agriculture (it ranks 14th by county in California) is due to the diversity of its crops. A statement from the county said more than 50 crops netted gross receipts of more than $1 million.
At the end of the day, Gillette said the numbers aren’t all that bad, especially considering how the year began.
“It started off looking like it wasn’t going to be a good year and turned out to be great for some crops and not so great for others,” he said.
The entire report is available at

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