MERCED — Agriculture, Merced County's economic engine, sputtered in 2009, losing about half a billion dollars in value.
The annual county crop report, released Tuesday by Merced County Agricultural Commissioner David Robinson, showed farm products went from $2.99 billion in 2008 to $2.4 billion, a drop of about 18 percent.
Milk led the decline, because dairy producers faced low milk prices and high feed costs. Although milk is still the No. 1 commodity, it went from $994 million in 2008 to $661 million.
"The overriding thing that represents 2009 was the tough situation that the dairy industry was in," Robinson said. "Milk remains our No. 1 commodity, but its value was down so much."
Despite the decline, for the fifth consecutive year Merced County's ag value passed the $2 billion mark.
In Stanislaus County, dairy farms grossed $462.3 million in 2009, compared with $689.3 million in 2008, ag commissioner Gary Caseri reported Friday. Almonds brought $455.6 million last year, up from $424.2 million.
The $6.7 million gap between milk and almonds last year was the smallest by far in crop reports dating to 1941.
Chickens held onto second place in Merced County because of the presence of Foster Farms, although gross income was down almost 5 percent.
And despite freeze damage and pollination problems, almonds were the third-most valuable commodity in Mer- ced, worth about $245 million. Good prices and more acreage in production helped the crop to continue posting strong numbers.
Tomatoes and cantaloupes saw total values go up, with tomatoes coming in as the county's sixth-most valuable commodity.
Mark Smith, deputy agricultural commissioner, said eggs took a hit this year because of producers voluntarily reducing the number of layers per cage.
"Proposition 2 (a California ballot proposition voted into law in 2008) doesn't take effect until 2014, but producers have succumbed to industry pressure," Smith said. Eggs were worth about $80 million in 2009, holding down seventh place.
The county posted its largest figure for farm products in 2007, when all commodities totaled more than $3 billion. But the 2009 value is still the third-highest in history, Robinson said.