California’s Farm Economy

Even with the drought it is still potent, as reported in this article from New Geography.

An excerpt.

We consume their products every day but economists give them little attention, and perhaps not enough respect. Yet America’s agriculture sector is not only the country’s oldest economic pillar but still a vital one, accounting for some 3.75 million jobs — not only in the fields, but in factories, laboratories and distribution. That compares to about 4.3 million jobs in the tech sector (which we analyzed last month here). Net farm income totaled $108 billion in 2014, according to preliminary figures from the USDA, up 24% from 2004.

This growth may not be impressive by Silicon Valley standards, but most farms and agribusinesses are likely to be with us longer than the latest social media darlings. Online crazes like FarmVille may come and go, but people always have to eat, and in the rest of world, many of them are eating more, and, as the old saying goes, “higher on the hog.” As the world’s leading exporter of agricultural products, the U.S. farm sector is capitalizing on that. The dollar value of U.S. agricultural exports rose to a record $152.5 billion in 2014, making up about 9% of total U.S. goods exports for the year. It’s one of a short list of sectors in which the United States has continued to consistently post a trade surplus — $42 billion last year.

For 2013, the USDA estimated that agricultural exports supported about 1.1 million full-time private-sector jobs, which included 793,900 off the farm (in the food processing industry, the trade and transportation sector and in other supporting industries).

There are many communities in America where agriculture is still a primary industry — even the dominant one. Working with Mark Schill, head of research at the Grand Forks, N.D.-based Praxis Strategy Group, we analyzed the performance of the nation’s largest 124 agriculture economies and put together a list of the strongest ones. We ranked the 124 metropolitan statistical areas based on short- and long-term job growth (2004-14 and 2012-14) in 68 agriculture-related industries (including food processing and manufacturing, wholesaling and farm equipment), average earnings in these communities, earnings growth, and the share of agribusiness in the local workforce.
Short On Water, But Still In The Lead

California may be struggling with a terrible drought, but its agricultural economy still thrives in the domestic and international markets. Six of our top 10 U.S. agricultural economies are in California, including No. 1 Madera, No. 3 Merced and No. 6 Bakersfield. These California regions have a similar profile: an outsized concentration in agribusiness, roughly 10 times the national average, reasonable growth, and low but rising wages.
All these areas did poorly during the recession, and some, notably Merced, have served as exemplars of what The New York Times described as the “ruins of the American dream.” Many California farm communities, particularly those closer to the ultra-pricey Bay Area, hoped that lower land prices would bring skilled workers, and maybe jobs, to their towns from places like Silicon Valley.

But if this aspiration to become a high-tech exurb has floundered in many places, the traditional agricultural economy has continued to roll along. Since 2004, agribusiness employment in our top-ranked agricultural economy, Madera, has surged 36.6%, which is impressive given that nationwide over the same time span, agribusiness employment has remained pretty much unchanged. Although pay for local agriculture-related jobs remains relatively low, wages have risen 15.7% over the past decade to $26,557 for the 14,700 people in this sector. (Note that farm owners on the whole are doing quite well. In 2013, the average farm household income was $118,373, according to the Congressional Research Service, 63% higher than the average U.S. household income of $72,641.)

The key to California farming is dominance in specialized, high-value sectors. California accounts for a remarkable 80% of the world’s almonds, and that lucrative cash crop has been key to Madera’s prosperity — the county produced $623 million worth of almonds in 2013. The area is a big producer of milk and grapes as well, and has a thriving organic farm sector.

Most of the other California leaders share a similar profile, but with sometimes different specializations. Grapes dominate No. 3 Bakersfield’s agricultural production, while Salinas (eighth), where we have both worked as consultants, describes itself as “the salad bowl of the world,” growing 70% of the nation’s lettuce. The area’s specialization in “fresh” has also made it a center of agricultural research and marketing, which provide higher-income opportunities than more traditional farm-based activities. The Salinas area has also developed a thriving winery scene along the nearby Santa Lucia Mountains as well as a burgeoning number of organic farms production sector in recent years.

Retrieved May 20, 2015 from

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
This entry was posted in demographics, Economy. Bookmark the permalink.