Sonoma County 2020 crop report shows milk value goes up, confirms fire impact on wine grapes

“Many challenges” for agriculture led to a 29% decline in the value of Sonoma County crops in 2020, the county Agriculture Commissioner said Tuesday.

“Wildfires once again arrived during the wine grape harvest leading to a significant amount of unpicked fruit due to possible smoke taint concerns,” county Agriculture Commissioner Andrew Smith wrote in the report and shared with county supervisors. “The coronavirus pandemic brought unforeseen impacts to farms, nurseries, supply, and labor and those impacts are reflected throughout this report.”

The drop off from a 2019 value of $958.5 million was “somewhat depressing,” Supervisor Susan Gorin said. It reflects gross production values totaling $680.6 million for an industry employing 8,500 laborers in the county. Over half work year-round to harvest a vast ag bounty that supervisors labeled as part of the county’s culture.

Wine grape value plummeted 45% but was offset by a 20% rise in livestock and poultry products highlighting milk and wool worth $190.9 million.

Of that, organic milk value from county producers came in as $142.4 million in 2020, up from $113.5 million in the previous year. Dairy farmers also saw a rise in value of conventional milk totaling $15.2 million opposed to $13.5 million from 2019.

Sonoma County’s neighbors came out with their 2020 crops reports in summer. To the west, Marin County released its report in July 13, also showing an increase in year-over-year organic milk production in the double digits as the North Bay Business Journal reported on two weeks later.

Sonoma County dairyman Doug Beretta speculated that perhaps the value of total livestock and poultry products encompassing milk went up because cows were producing more in 2020 than 2019 or farmers added more head. Beretta milks 285 cows on his Santa Rosa dairy farm.

“They could be getting more milk per cow,” he told the Business Journal, adding the “market was flooded” with milk partialy with restaurant shutdowns.

The value of livestock and poultry dictated by cattle, sheep and hogs in the report also showed an increase in 2020 versus 2019 to $69.6 million from $67.9 million.

Long Table Farm grower Will Holloway has witnessed the costs of poultry goods going up. In 2017, Holloway’s Santa Rosa farm pivoted from poultry to produce, but he has noticed changes in the marketplace.

“The costs of the products have gone up,” he said, noting the price of eggs doubling in the last five years. “They’ve gone up, and I don’t think they’ll ever come down.”

No other industry experienced more devastation in the last few years like Sonoma County’s agricultural cash cow — wine. The crop report’s tally of 2020 wine grapes was another sobering reminder of the disastrous toll from the year’s wildfires.

Total tonnage fell  35.5% (148,085, from 229,811 in 2019) to the lowest heft in two decades. Crop value plummeted 45.3% ($351.5 million, from $654 million), and yield by 35% (2.6 tons per acre, from 4).

The county’s leading grape varieties took a wallop in tonnage and pricing last year from 2019 levels. Top grape cabernet sauvignon fell 32% in tonnage and 45% in per-ton pricing. Third-ranked pinot noir tonnage dropped by half, but pricing tumbled 20%. No. 2 chardonnay fell by 36% by tonnage but just 4% by price.

The  figures Tuesday were in line with what the Business Journal reported in February, with the first look at the annual California Grape Crush Report.

Analysts told the Business Journal early this year that the drop in pricing for North Coast cab reflected a near-oversupply situation the premium winegrowing region had been wrestling with since 2017, which the fires brought closer into balance.

The second year of drought is estimated to have reduced this year’s wine grape crop to a lesser degree than in 2020. By how much won’t be known with further clarity until the state crush report is released, set for early February 2022.

On the brighter side of the county ag picture, field crops listed as hay, oats, rye and straw pulled in a gain in value in 2020 to $11.2 million.

Apples about evened out with a slight decrease of 3%, despite the industry experiencing an increase in value of Gravenstein apples from 2019. 2020 saw less apple tonnage brought to market by 2.9% from 2019 because of a continued lack of processors and inclement weather during bloom.

The value of nursery products listed as plants, flowers and Christmas trees was down 12.4% from 2019, which grossed a worth amounting to $53 million. For one, this drop was due to an 11% decrease in ornamental plant sales and a 25% decrease in miscellaneous nursery plant sales.

From land to sea, commercial crab fishing also took a hit, down $400,000 in 2020 to an even $5 million for the county. This is despite commercial fishing grossing a rise of $10.2 million in the ocean’s bounty.

Crab fishermen, in particular, have endured a plague of obstacles ranging from increased regulations and reduced wholesale prices to whales pausing their migrations off the coast, forcing a delay in the opening of the season. Commercial crabbers in the zone have not gone out yet in the waters south of Fort Bragg and north of Monterey.

“It’s been a fiasco. We’re patiently waiting,” Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association Executive Director Mike Conroy told the Business Journal.

The 2020 crops report ended with a few commenters weighing in on the county including cannabis in its crop report, with local attorney and Santa Rosa resident Lauren Mendelsohn calling it “not an industry to be ignored.”

The board requested a cannabis appendix after the 2019 report was received, but Smith indicated the department was delayed in year referred to by Supervisor David Rabbit as “a strange time” for disastrous experiences. Smith pledged to add cannabis to the 2021 crops report.

“This report honors and promotes their hard work and showcases the county’s accomplishments in supporting agriculture, protecting the environment and working to ensure that our community and economy can weather the storms that climate change will continue to bring to the county,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, the chairwoman of the board.

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