Since 1948, California has been the national leader in farm sales, specializing in high-value commodities such as dairy, fruits, nuts, and wine. The state has been able to attain this status due to its considerable resource base, broad agricultural research capabilities, and an innovative education system. However, producing such a diverse portfolio of goods presents unique challenges related to water, land, labor, marketing, and trade.
In the new book California Agriculture: Dimensions and Issues, published by the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics late last year, leading agricultural economists from UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and UC Riverside address issues such as labor, water, climate, and trade that affect California agriculture. It details the past, present, and future of many of California’s major agricultural commodities, including grapes, tree fruits and nuts, vegetable crops, dairy, livestock, nursery and floral production, and cannabis.
“California agriculture overcame many obstacles to become the nation’s number one farm state," says Phil Martin, UC Davis Emeritus Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics, a co-editor of the new publication. "Leading agricultural economists are generally optimistic that California agriculture will continue to thrive in the 21st century, despite continuing large challenges.”
Current and former researchers in the Rausser College Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ARE) are featured. Professor Brian D. Wright is co-editor of the book. ARE professor David Zilberman and alumnus Itai Trilnick co-author a chapter about innovation, supply chains, and precision agriculture. Professor and dean emeritus Gordon Rausser co-authors a chapter on the Giannini Foundation and its social value.
The book uses the most recent Census of Agriculture data to show that, of the $64 billion of these crops grown in the U.S. in 2017, California produced nearly half by value ($31 billion). More than 44 percent of California’s $50 billion in farm sales in 2017 were fruits and nuts, with 17 percent of sales from vegetables and melons, and 14 percent from nursery and other horticultural specialties crops. Many of these high-value specialty crops are also very labor-intensive and face challenges from increased cost and decreased availability of agricultural labor.
The book discusses how California growers effectively responded to these labor challenges by adopting labor-saving mechanization. California remains competitive with producers elsewhere by relying on superior plant varieties, integrated pest management, and improved irrigation methods that increase both the quantity and quality of California agricultural commodities.
Water, climate, and trade pose challenges and opportunities for California agriculture. In the last decade, water scarcity and decreased water quality, along with regulations to address these issues like the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, have prompted farmers to use scarce water to irrigate more valuable crops, as with the switch from cotton to almonds. Increased regulations and the increasing scarcity of water affect high-value specialty crops as well as the dairy and livestock industries that accounted for 24 percent of California farm sales in 2017.
Climate variability, including drought and heat stress, affects farm worker welfare, crop yields, and dairy productivity. Retaliatory tariffs resulting from the 2018 trade war reduced U.S. agricultural exports to China by close to $14.4 billion per year, as exports of dairy, livestock, and specialty crops fell. California agriculture has a rich history of overcoming challenges by pursuing innovative research, adopting new technologies, and adapting to changing conditions. Learning how California agriculture has succeeded in the past suggests that the state can maintain its dominant role as an agricultural producer in the future.
The Giannini Foundation was founded in 1930 from a grant made by the Bancitaly Corporation (later renamed Bank of America) to the University of California. Its mission is to promote and support research and outreach activities in agricultural economics and rural development to benefit the agricultural industry, policymakers, and society at large.
Read more about several of the major California agricultural commodities and the issues and opportunities they face in the new, second edition of California Agriculture: Dimensions and Issues.