FRESNO -- Farmers have set new crop-value records in three central San Joaquin Valley counties -- and Fresno County is likely to post similar results.
Madera and Tulare counties released 2011 crop reports on Tuesday that highlighted robust returns from milk, citrus, grapes and almonds.
Farmers continued to expand acreage of citrus and nuts -- especially almonds -- in response to strong overseas demand.
Grapes fared well, as competition between raisin producers and wineries drove up prices. High milk prices helped bolster returns, despite rising feed costs.
Growers also shifted the types of crops they farmed, reducing stone-fruit acreage and expanding tangerine orchards.
In Tulare County, high milk prices helped the county's gross crop values to rise 16 percent to $5.6 billion -- the highest ever, according to its 2011 crop report.
In Madera County, crop values broke a record at $1.5 billion, up 16 percent from the previous year.
Kings County's gross farm values were its highest ever at $2.2 billion last year as milk, nuts and cotton prices were strong. Kings County, which released its crop report in June, added acres of almonds, pistachios and walnuts.
Farmers in other Valley counties are also likely to show strong gains when those crop reports are released later this month.
"It would not be an incredible shock if we did have a record year," said Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner Carol Hafner. "Some of our major commodities had good years, but whether that is enough to pull us into a record or banner year remains to be seen." Throughout the central San Joaquin Valley, farmers have benefitted from higher prices, booming export markets and increased consumption.
"There has been a strong trend over the last few years of planting higher value crops like almonds," said Jay Seslowe, assistant agricultural commissioner in Madera County. "And we are seeing the results of that."
Over the past several years, almonds have been among the most dominant crops in the Valley in both acreage and value. More than 70 percent of the state's crop is exported and farmers are expecting another record crop this year at 2.1 billion pounds.
Fresno County ranks as the third-largest producer in the state and acreage for almonds and other nuts continues to grow in neighboring counties.
In Tulare County, nut acreage -- pistachio, almonds and walnuts -- grew by more than 8,000 acres, an increase of 10.5 percent, while grape acreage rose by more than 3,000 acres, or about 4 percent. And more than 2,000 acres of tangerines were added last year.
The value of almonds grew 30 percent to $137 million last year while grape values rose 9 percent to $532 million and tangerine values increased 15 percent to $134 million.
Milk remained the county's top product, generating $2 billion in revenue, an increase of 28 percent over the previous year. But high feed prices ate away at some of those profits, Tulare County Agricultural Commissioner Marilyn Kinoshita said.
"We produced more than 11 billion pounds of milk, but feed prices also went through the roof," Kinoshita said.
Kinoshita suspects that tangerine acreage may be taking the place of other commodities, including peaches, plums, apricots and nectarines that were farmed on 2,200 fewer acres.
In Madera County, grapes, milk and almonds fueled much of the growth.
"Since 2000 our crop values have more (than) doubled," Seslowe said.
One of the fastest growing crops in Madera County has been almonds. Over the past three years, almonds have grown from 68,000 acres in 2009 to 89,000 last year. During that same period, the crop's value has more than doubled, to $382.8 million.
Almond hulls added $31.6 million to the overall value.
Grape acreage, especially raisin grape varieties such as the Thompson Seedless, also climbed. Demand from the state's wineries and raisin packers drove the price for Thompson grapes last year to record highs.
Overall, the value of Madera County's grape crop jumped nearly 30 percent to $301 million.
Also posting strong gains last year was milk. The value rose 38.2 percent to $327 million with increases in production and price.
Milk was Madera County's second highest-grossing product, behind almonds. The county had 49 dairies and 68,183 milking cows.
"We have some very successful farmers and dairymen and they are doing well and buying more land to do even better," said Anja K. Raudabaugh, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau.
Pistachio production had an off year, falling from the No. 2 spot in 2010 to No. 4.
As an alternate-bearing crop, last year's crop was smaller than the previous year and its value tumbled 53 percent to $113 million.