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Down on the Farm, California Style

Sharon Palmer

Get a peek at agriculture and sustainability goals in the Golden state.

California is an awesome place to grow plants. In fact, it’s one of five Mediterranean growing regions on the planet. It’s a virtual golden land of agriculture, producing some of the world’s most delicious foods, including olives, lemons, pistachios, and grapes. A total of 77,500 farms and ranches produce more than 400 commodities worth $47 billion, making California the leading U.S. state in agricultural production and exports. The state produces over a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts (CDFA, 2016).

Strawberry farm in Monterrey, California.

This was in full view on a recent farm tour I attended in Monterrey, California, hosted by the Alliance for Food and Farming. That’s my in a field of artichokes during the tour (pictured above). I observed farming practices for a variety of produce, including strawberries, lettuce, artichokes, and celery. As a 30-year resident of California, it never ceases to amaze me just how intriguing our agricultural system is. Produce farms are like a patchwork quilt of different colors and textures across the state, growing a diverse rotation of vegetables crops that will feed the nation. Many of these delicate crops are hand harvested by hard-working farm workers in order to bring delicious plant foods to your nearby supermarket. New state laws continue to improve farm worker conditions, with a rise in minimum wage, overtime pay, and protections against harassment.  

Farmworkers harvesting strawberries by hand.

The legend of California’s agricultural history is that of progressive farmers who made a desert bloom and cultivated high quality foods, thanks to agricultural ingenuity. Historians credit the Gold Rush miners for discovering great expanses of fertile soils beneath the steady gaze of the California sun, though these were certainly well known and appreciated by Native American tribes in the area for centuries. By the 1850s, the state’s grain output exceeded its local consumption, and California’s reputation as the great food supplier was born. Sped along with improved transportation, agricultural expansion was rapid; between 1859 and 1929, the number of farms increased 700%.

In a celery farm in Monterey, California.

As impressive as this sounds, agriculture production is set against a backdrop of challenges, including a history of drought. While this the past year’s influx of rainwater is encouraging, water will continue to be a challenge in a state with widening growing seasons due to further expansion of agriculture into desert regions. Nine million acres of California farmland are irrigated, representing 80% of all water used in the state (PPIC, 2010). Other challenges include regulations, invasive species, urbanization, and much more. For example, productive California farmland is converted to nonagricultural uses at the rate of 30,000 acres per year (CRAE, 2014), over half of the organic matter in the soil has been lost since the dawn of California agriculture, and the dairy industry contributes 2% of the state’s total methane emissions (Sustainable Conservation).

Sustainable strategy for fresh strawberries: paper cartons.

The good news is that California leads the nation in agricultural sustainability measures. The state’s climate change legislation aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions related to agriculture to pre-1990 levels (Sustainable Conservation). California Agricultural Vision, a set of goals and strategies conceived by the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the State Board of Food and Agriculture, hopes to address a number of concerns surrounding sustainability, such as securing adequate water, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and ensuring fair farm labor practices (CDFA, 2010, see below). Given Californian’s reputation for being tenacious, progressive, and ever optimistic, the prospect for a more sustainable food system in California is sunny.

California Farm Facts

  • Twenty-seven percent of California farms generate commodity sales over $100,000 greater than the national average of 20%.
  • The average farm size is 329 acres (national average is 441).
  • An estimated 25.5 million acres are devoted to farming and ranching.
  • The average value of farm real estate is $7,900 per acre.
  • The top 20 commodities are (in descending order): milk/cream, almonds, grapes, cattle/calves, lettuce, strawberries, tomatoes, flower/foliage, walnuts, hay, broilers, broccoli, rice oranges, pistachios, carrots, lemons, eggs, peppers, and raspberries.
  • Twenty-six percent of agricultural production is exported.
  • California represents 19% of all organic farms and 36% of all organic sales.
  • Two-thirds of organic sales in California are from produce, one-fourth are from livestock, and the remainder are from field crops.
  • California produces 90% or more of the organic crops in the US for lettuce, grapes, strawberries, broccoli, celery, cauliflower, avocados, almonds, plums, walnuts, dates, lemons, figs, and artichokes.

Sources: CDFA, 2016; Klonsky, 2010

California’s Fruit and Vegetable Crop Season

Source: CDFA, 2016

 California Agricultural Vision Goals

  1. Better health and wellbeing: meeting the nutrition and culinary needs of California’s diverse population and consumers across the country and around the world.
  2. A healthier planet: improving the health of the natural resources upon which California and food production depend.
  3. Thriving communities: food production and processing are drivers of sustainable California economic growth.
  4. Connections between famers and the consuming public: citizens are agriculture and food literate, understanding and appreciating what it takes to bring food and fiber to market, and the people behind California agriculture.
  5. A diverse set of agriculture entities are thriving: ensuring agriculture has the land, water, human capital, and access to the resources and legislative support it needs to remain profitable and competitive in the 21st century.


Source: California Department of Food and Agriculture, California Agriculture Vision, 2017

Written by Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN
Images by Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN

Sponsored by the Alliance for Food and Farming

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