Wine grapes help Sonoma County surpass $1B in annual agricultural production for first time

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Sonoma County’s Most Valuable Crops In 2018

Wine grapes: $777 million

Milk: $141 million

Miscellaneous livestock and poultry: $41 million

Miscellaneous livestock and poultry products: $39 million

Cattle and calves: $21 million

Nursery (ornamentals): $20 million

Source: Sonoma County Agriculture Department

Sonoma County’s crops produced by farmers in 2018 surpassed $1 billion in value for the first time, riding the wave of continued popularity of their premium wine grapes amid a shifting consumer marketplace during a post-drought era and the emergence of legal cannabis products.

The $1.1 billion mark was a 24% increase from 2017, driven mostly by wine grapes that represent 70% of the overall value of the county’s agricultural production as wineries continue to pay top prices for coveted fruit to make their wines, according to the annual crop report released Tuesday by the county’s agriculture department.

The $777 million wine grape crop last year was a 34% increase from the previous year, driven by the biggest crop yield ever and higher prices for varieties such as pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon grapes. Milk was No. 2 at $141 million — a 3% increase from 2017 — with its value derived from dairies that have transitioned into certified organic operations that can charge more money.

“Exceeding the one billion dollar crop value in this report proves that our agriculture industry continues to be an economic engine that generates high-quality food and fiber,” said David Rabbitt, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

But Rabbit said in an interview that it’s a “challenge to be a farmer in Sonoma County” because there’s an oversupply of organic milk, as well as troubles in other farming areas. That would include commercial fishing, a sector that had crab season cut short because of a legal settlement over whale and sea turtle entanglements.

The report noted smaller crops that showed a significant uptick in 2018. Most notably, wholesale nursery products reached a value of $50.5 million, a 43% increase from 2017. This category includes plants and trees sold to retail outlets or landscapers, but not to consumers. A big boost came in ornamental plants, which increased 74% last year to a total of $20.4 million. Cut flowers grew by 47% to $6.1 million.

“We’re really blessed to have some good climate to protect this nursery stock,” Sonoma County Agriculture Commissioner Tony Lineger said. “It was the biggest surprise.”

The rise in output of nurseries can be attributed to a number of factors, such as home rebuilding after the 2017 wildfires and property owners looking for new plants in the region’s post-drought era. In addition, a new large nursery, Devil Mountain Nursery, opened in Petaluma and some others expanded, Lineger said.

Emerisa Gardens in Santa Rosa, which has a wholesale and retail business, has experienced growth with the rebuilding as customers look for fire-resistant plants and those that don’t use a lot of a water.

Succulents have been the go-to products for many people as it meets both requirements, said Jani Weaver, manager of the store’s retail side.

The wholesale business has about 2,500 plants that are specifically grown for the Sonoma County climate.

“The succulents are doing great,” Weaver said. “Years ago, we didn’t grow many succulents.”

Tony Bloom, co-owner of Bloom’s Wholesale Nursery in Glen Ellen, agreed that retail buyers are looking for a greater variety of plants that are more drought resistant.

That has been the reason for the success of succulents and similar plants, he said. His nursery suffered significant fire damage in the 2017 North Bay wildfires but has bounced back to have an increase in sales as consumers have been eager to replant their scarred lots.

Sonoma County’s Most Valuable Crops In 2018

Wine grapes: $777 million

Milk: $141 million

Miscellaneous livestock and poultry: $41 million

Miscellaneous livestock and poultry products: $39 million

Cattle and calves: $21 million

Nursery (ornamentals): $20 million

Source: Sonoma County Agriculture Department

“They have been sensitized to the water use issue,” Bloom said. “That has really taken hold.”

His nursery also has seen growth in vegetable plants, which consumers grow in their own home gardens. Such vegetables can be cheaper than those bought at local farmers markets.

Meanwhile, last year’s crop report also reflects the changing nature of agriculture in Sonoma County through the years. For example, prunes and apples were top crops decades ago and yet eventually gave way to more profitable wine grapes.

“It changes through time. It’s farmers following the market and what people want,” said Dave Kranz, spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation. “It ebbs and flows.”

That question is particularly relevant given the emergence of cannabis, which was legalized in California for recreational use in 2018 but not included in Sonoma County’s crop report.

Lineger told county supervisors Tuesday the state regulation has classified cannabis as an agricultural product rather than a crop, which has led county agricultural departments statewide to not in=clude the value of legal marijuana in annual crop reports — though there is no prohibition for inclusion.

The county ag commissioner said he plans an addendum on cannabis for the 2019 crop report but wouldn’t include marijuana among the main crops tallied and analyzed unless supervisors required it.

Nevertheless, Lineger’s staff provided an estimate on the value of cannabis farms that have been licensed by the county, placing a $95 million value on the 15 acres regulated. That estimate does not include many illegal commercial farms that continue to exist despite legalization.

That estimate equals about $5.9 million per acre, which would far outpace the almost $13,000 per-acre value for wine grapes.

“It’s astounding,” Lineger said of the value of legal cannabis that he called conservative. Rabbit said “that number was pretty staggering.”

The issue will get even more complicated with the emergence of hemp, the nonintoxicating cannabis strain used for industrial purposes.

The 2018 federal farm bill legalized the hemp crop across the country, though Sonoma County has a moratorium on growing the plant until April 30, 2020, while regulations are written.

Some local farmers may want to gravitate toward hemp, given that it doesn’t carry the restrictions of cannabis at the federal level, such as the prohibition on banks offering accounts to pot growers and its classification as an illegal drug, Lineger said.

Even with surpassing the $1 billion value mark, Sonoma County still is not in the top 10 counties statewide in terms of agricultural production.

In the latest overall state rankings, which was for the 2017 crop year, the county ranked No. 17, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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