Appreciate Agriculture: The Other Side of California

California gets a bad rap in the consumer media. Some of it’s deserved, no doubt, but a lot of it isn’t. Most people think they know a lot about California, but they don’t. They think of places like Hollywood, Venice Beach, or San Francisco, but that’s like thinking about Chicago when you think of Illinois. It’s not wrong, exactly, but it’s not right.

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Most know nothing of the state’s agriculture, for instance. Sure, they know about the wine grapes, and maybe the almonds, or even the strawberries, but they don’t know about the dairy. In fact, I meet a lot of fruit growers who are surprised to learn that Wisconsin may be the Dairy State, but California’s $6.56 billion dairy industry leads the nation.

For the general public, California is not even known as much of an ag state. You can’t really blame them, as the popular picture of ag in the U.S. is that of the Midwest farm belt and its corn and soybeans. But with more than $50 billion in annual cash receipts — more than 13% of the nation’s total — the Golden State is aptly named.

Outside of dairy, fruit and nut crops do dominate, with the following crops cracking the state’s top 10: grapes, $5.8 billion; almonds, $5.6 billion; strawberries, $3.1 billion; walnuts, $1.6 billion; and pistachios, $1.0 billion. (All the figures in this column are from 2017, the last year I could get solid data.)

For those concerned about trade imbalance, $20 billion-worth of those crops were exported in 2017. But while every number you see regarding California ag seems to be going up, there is one going down. In fact, there is one area where the numbers are turning decidedly red across the board — the amount of pesticides used. That’s right, the same year California grew its farmgate receipts by nearly 6% over the previous year, its growers used 1.9% fewer pesticides.

Perhaps even more noteworthy are the types of pesticides seeing the greatest decreases in use, according to the state Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR):
• Carcinogenic pesticides decreased by 5.6% to 41.7 million pounds.
• Fumigant pesticides decreased by 5.8% to 39.5 million pounds.
• Pesticides that are deemed by DPR to be toxic air contaminants decreased by 6.4% to 43 million pounds.
• Pesticides with the potential to contaminate ground water decreased by 25.3% to 0.4 million pounds.

DPR noted one category of pesticides used in agriculture that did increase. Biopesticides, which have been identified as likely to be low risk to human health and the environment, increased by 5.5% to approximately 8.1 million pounds.

These numbers tell a remarkable story. California growers continue to ramp up production — not even an earthquake is going to jar their plans much, not the ones I know — while cutting the amounts of pesticides used, especially the ones deemed by the state to be the greatest health hazards.

But this is a story you won’t hear anywhere else. For the consumer media, the “other” California — the one that produces nearly half this nation’s fruits and vegetables — isn’t sexy enough. But as for me, when I see strong business growth going hand in hand with numerous public benefits, all I can think is “Ooh la` la`.”