Tomatoes once again Yolo’s top crop as drought worries grow

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The almond’s two-year run as Yolo County’s most valuable crop came to an end in 2020 thanks to a 46-percent decrease in almond prices. Tomatoes, which held the top spot for nearly six decades before being supplanted by almonds in 2018, were the county’s most valuable crop last year, with a gross value of more than $127 million. Wine grapes held on to the second spot while almonds fell to third. The decline in almond prices contributed to an overall drop in the gross value of the county’s agricultural production, which fell by 12.5 percent from $765 million in 2019 to $670 million in 2020, according to the county’s annual crop report. The top five crops were tomatoes, wine grapes, almonds, rice and organic production, followed by sunflower seeds, walnuts, alfalfa hay, nursery products and olives. The county’s top five export partners were China, Japan, Mexico, India and South Korea. The return of the tomato to the top spot in Yolo County came two years after it dropped to second place behind almonds, “a milestone in agriculture for Yolo County,” the former agricultural commissioner John Young said at the time. Since 1960, the tomato had the highest gross sales of any crop produced in the county. Almonds had been steadily gaining though and surpassed the value of tomatoes in 2018 before fortunes reversed last year. “Things change,” Young noted in 2018. “Things become valuable, then go out of favor. It ebbs and flows.” For many years the sugar beet was the county’s top crop. In fact, in 1938, Yolo County was not only tops in the state in sugar beets, but number one nationally. Around 1951, though, barley appeared, as well as rice and tomatoes. And in 1960, tomatoes took over the top spot, remaining there for 57 years. 2020 was a tough year for walnut and almond growers, according to a report from the Yolo County Farm Bureau, which said the price of walnuts was regarded by most as below the cost of production and almonds at or below production costs. “Most industry experts expect almonds to recover faster than walnuts,” the report said. Key issues identified by the farm bureau for all crops include drought impacts as well as a shortage of farmworkers and affordable housing for those workers. The drought is a big concern. When it comes to ground water, “pumps are at lowered capacity and some are sucking air and sand,” the farm bureau reported, and wells have gone dry while well companies are booked up a year in advance. “We all sincerely hope it rains buckets and buckets this winter,” the farm bureau noted. Surface water is also limited, with no water available from Clear Lake or the Indian Valley Reservoir and Sacramento River allocations reduced. Last Tuesday, the Yolo County Board of Supervisors declared a local drought emergency in unincorporated areas which will allow for future water conservation measures. But while households can limit their water usage fairly easily, farms have a tougher time. “We all can’t live without our food,” noted the county’s emergency services manager Dana Carey. “We are a heavy agricultural community,” she noted. “We back that with pride. But out of the crops that use the most water, the top 20 of them, eight of them are in the Yolo County 2020 crop report.” They include almonds, alfalfa, wine grapes and rice. “Because of the food that we’re growing, which is a good thing — we export to over 100 partners on every continent — it does mean that we are challenged with water usage,” said Carey. “It is estimated by the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences that roughly 40 percent of California water is used for agriculture, so it is something that we’re going to have to balance with those who live in the area.” One county supervisor Jim Provenza wondered if regulations may be needed in the future over what types of crops can be grown. If the water situation gets worse, he said, “do we need to start thinking about that?” No further discussion on that idea was held on Tuesday, but county supervisors did adopt multiple resolutions focused on the water shortage. The most significant calls for a 25 percent reduction in water usage in the Wild Wings neighborhood near Woodland and confirmed Carey’s authority to implement emergency mandatory reductions if needed. Wild Wings relies on two wells for its water and as of early spring, both were approximately 18 feet lower than the same time last year, according to county staff. One of the wells, which serves the Wild Wings golf course and as the Wild Wings community back-up water supply, had to be turned off as the pump could no longer properly operate the well, county staff said. A temporary, alternative water supply has been implemented in coordination with the Yolo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District but the primary well serving the Wild Wings community has just three to four months to shutoff based on projections using recent water level data. County supervisors called the situation there “dire,” but noted what’s happening there may portend the future for other areas of the county as well.

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