MERCED — Dairy remains the engine that drives Merced County agriculture, according to the 2011 Agriculture Statistics Crop Report, and that's not likely to change.
Milk blew the competition away, yielding $1.1 billion in gross farm income, said the report. Almonds were a distant second at $397.2 million.
But tough economic times for the dairy industry and an increased demand in the world almond market will likely have narrowed the gap when the 2012 report is released in the fall.
The almond harvest this year is under way throughout the Northern San Joaquin Valley, with forecasts calling for another huge crop and strong markets worldwide.
Despite the strength and expansion of the almond industry in recent years, dairy remains king in Merced County.
While many dairies across the nation have recovered from the recession, those in California have continued to struggle, according to California Dairy Campaign Executive Director Lynne McBride.
"The problem really began in 2010 when a gap between the California price and federal order price for dairy was created," McBride said.
McBride said legislation is in the works to even out the pricing, but dairies have felt the effects in the meantime.
Throughout the state, 105 of them have gone out of business in 2012.
Eight of those closing dairies were in Merced County.
Merced County's 243 active dairies still ranked second in the state behind Tulare County (296), but the economic climate might be pushing some farmers towards almonds and other crops.
"I think that because of the sheer number of dairies in Merced County, it's going to continue to be the top export," McBride said. "I have heard of some of the dairies that were forced to shut down are planting almond orchards, so that is something we're seeing.
"It takes a real sacrifice and commitment to run a dairy, so hopefully once we even out the market value, they'll start to thrive again."