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Strawberries Are Sweet Spot in SB County Agriculture

Crop values in county exceeded $1.2 billion in 2011, according to annual report released by the Agricultural Commissioner's Office

Santa Barbara County produced agricultural crops valued at nearly $1.2 billion in 2011, a slight decline from the previous year but still the sixth straight year the total exceeded $1 billion, according to the county Agricultural Commissioner’s Office.

Strawberries were the top crop, with a gross value of more than $366 million, followed by broccoli at $126.8 million and wine grapes at almost $77 million.

Rounding out the top 10, in order of gross value, were head lettuce, avocados, cauliflower, celery, cattle, lily cut flowers and gerbera cut flowers.

Key sectors seeing changes in 2011 were wine grapes, which suffered significant weather-related losses, and cattle, which is benefiting from a strong export market, according to Cathleen Fisher, county agricultural commissioner.

The overall gross production showed a decline of $25.6 million — 2.1 percent — Fisher said, adding that the report reflects gross values, and not the net profit of the ag producers.

Most of the drop can be attributed to fruit and nut crops, with both strawberries and wine grapes seeing significant declines year over year.

Wine grapes suffered serious damage from cold temperatures, which was reflected in an almost 21-percent drop in gross production — to $76.9 million from $97.3 million in 2010.

“We had a very difficult year with the weather,” Fisher noted Tuesday. “We had a very late freeze in early April, which was a statewide event, by the way. There was a lot of damage to new growth, and that was followed by strong winds and continued rain.”

The effect, Fisher said, was a 27-percent drop in overall yield — to 60,000 tons of grapes from 82,661 the year before.

Strawberries, which also dropped in acreage — to 6,471 from 7,680 — declined in gross production to $366.6 million to $392.3 million in 2010. Fisher attributed that to a consolidation among smaller growers, and some farmers moving out of the area due to high land-lease costs.

Avocados saw a boost in value — to $58.1 million from $52 million — and a slight increase in overall acreage.

Cattle also was up year over year — to $26.2 million from $20.8 million in 2010.

“We have a very strong export market for beef,” Fisher said, adding that much of the increase was driving by higher prices stemming from a world-wide shortage of beef.

She also pointed to excellent range-land conditions as a contributing factor to beef’s strong showing.

Asked about the overall state of agriculture in Santa Barbara County, Fisher said, “It’s doing very well. I attribute that to its diversity — even if one crop has a bad year, another will have a good year.”

Looking forward, Fisher said local agriculture will be challenged primarily by new regulations, higher production costs, and potential labor shortages.

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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