Weather Forecast


Severe drought in Calif. continues to impact state’s agriculture sector

By Wes Nelson

Farm Service Agency

WILLMAR — While in recent months Minnesota’s weather has been dominated by wetter- and cooler-than-normal conditions, just the opposite has been true in California. And while we tend to equate California with palm tree-lined streets, mansion-sized homes overlooking the ocean, and mammoth freeway systems jammed with cars and trucks, we often overlook the fact that California, by far, is our nation’s number one agricultural state.

With the driest year on record coming on the heels of several drier-than-normal years, drought conditions are likely to have a major impact on California’s agricultural production in 2014. Despite a recent series of major storms, long-term moisture deficits across most of California still remain at near-record levels.  

A recent report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service highlighted some noteworthy facts regarding California’s agricultural sector, and why drought conditions there could have potential implications for U.S. food supplies and food prices.

On January 17, the governor of California declared a drought emergency. By March 4, more than 94 percent of California’s $45 billion agricultural sector was experiencing severe, extreme or exceptional drought, with the livestock sector more directly exposed to exceptional drought conditions than the crop sector.

Irrigation’s significance to California agriculture

About 8 million acres in California are irrigated, representing a third of the total land in farms and the majority of the state’s harvested cropland. Over 4 million acres are irrigated primarily with groundwater, and about 1.4 million acres are irrigated primarily with on-farm surface water supplies. The remaining 3.2 million acres are irrigated mainly with off-farm surface water supplies.

Much of California’s farmland receives source water from snowfall in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. According to the California Department of Water Resources, as of February, snowpack was at approximately 24 percent of normal levels across the state.

A major uncertainty about the impacts of the 2014 drought in California is the extent to which farmers will be able to offset shortfalls in surface water deliveries through increases in groundwater withdrawals.

On January 31, the State Water Project, which provides surface water to about 750,000 acres of agricultural land, announced that for the first time ever, it would not be able to deliver any water to its users.

The Federal Central Valley Project, which supplies water to about 3 million acres, delivered only 20 percent of its contracted water in 2013, and is likely to be even more constrained in 2014.

Fruit, tree nuts and vegetables dominate California agriculture

Fruit, tree nuts and vegetables play a dominant role in California agriculture. On the average, receipts from fruit and tree nuts accounted for 59 percent of California’s total agricultural crop value during the years 2010-12. During those same years, commercial vegetables generated 24 percent of the state’s total crop value, while field and miscellaneous crops totaled just 17 percent.

Nationwide, California produces more than 60 percent of the total U.S. farm value of fruit and tree nuts, and 51 percent of the total vegetable farm value.

According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, 21 percent of all U.S. farms growing fruit, tree nuts and vegetables are in California, accounting for 40 percent of our nation’s total acreage of those crops.

Most of California’s acreage devoted to fruit, tree nuts and vegetables is under irrigation — specifically, 97 percent of the land in orchards, 100 percent of the land in berries, and 100 percent of the land planted to vegetables.

California’s tree nut production is the nation’s largest, supplying virtually all U.S. produced almonds, walnuts and pistachios.

California ranks second to Florida in citrus production, but is the major supplier of citrus fruit for the fresh market. A vast majority of the state’s citrus acreage is devoted to oranges. California also produces more than 90 percent of our nation’s lemons and more than 50 percent of the tangerines.

California also a major livestock state

Livestock and livestock products also play an important role in California agriculture, contributing over a quarter of the total value of the state’s agriculture production. Cash receipts for livestock products totaled $12.2 billion in 2012, or just over 7 percent of the total U.S. cash receipts for livestock. This value comes mainly from dairy products, cattle and calves, chickens and egg production.

California has the nation’s largest inventory of dairy cows and ranks fourth in total U.S. cattle inventory. California’s 5.25 million head of cattle equals 6 percent of all U.S. cattle supplies and 8 percent of all U.S. calves.

California leads the nation in dairy production, producing 21 percent of our nation’s total milk. The state is also the leading producer of butter and non-fat milk, and is second only to Wisconsin in cheese production.

California’s dairy production is concentrated in a few areas, most of which are currently experiencing severe or extreme drought conditions, including the famed San Joaquin Valley. Eight counties make up the San Joaquin Valley and those eight counties account for 87 percent of the state’s dairy cow inventory and 76 percent of its dairies.

The majority of California’s dairy cows are raised in dry lots and fed grain, including alfalfa hay, rather than grazing on pasture. So it’s not surprising that California is also the leading state in alfalfa production, accounting for nearly 11 percent of the total U.S. alfalfa production in 2013.

But despite the issues and worries regarding drought conditions, milk production in California, through February, has remained above year-earlier levels, while milk prices reached record highs.

January milk production in California was 4.4 percent higher than last year, and February production was 5.3 percent higher. Much of the increase was due to increases in average milk production on a per-cow basis. Meanwhile, U.S. milk production is expected to increase by 2 percent this year.

To view the entire report regarding California agriculture and the potential implications from drought conditions, visit

Wes Nelson is executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency in Kandiyohi County.