Sustained Growth: Strong prices in 2007 helped many farmers in valley stay ahead

The latest federal Census of Agriculture, released Wednesday, found farming to be in a generally healthy state in the Northern San Joaquin Valley and beyond.

The data are for 2007, before recession gripped the overall economy and some parts of agriculture stumbled, but it shows that income from food and fiber production has been strong for much of the decade.

For example, the average net income for a Stanislaus County farm -- what was left after deducting production costs -- was $119,549 in 2007, compared with $58,682 in the last census in 2002.

The new report shows that California continues to produce far more income per acre than the nation overall. That's because of the high value of fruit, nuts, vegetables and dairy products compared with the field crops and rangeland that account for much of U.S. acreage.

"California is so diverse and grows so many types of crops," said Wayne Zipser, executive manager of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau. "That's what makes us so unique."

Production costs -- such as fuel, fertilizer, labor, land and environmental regulations -- have been volatile in recent years. Still, the rise in net income indicates that many farmers were staying ahead, thanks to strong prices in 2007 for almonds and several other products.

In Merced County, the average farm's net income rose to $240,383 in 2007 from $70,042 in 2002. Much of this was due to dairy farms, whose statewide gross income was $6.55 billion in 2007, compared with $3.74 billion five years before.

San Joaquin County had an average of $109,085 in 2007 and $66,772 in 2002. Average net income rose as well for the state and nation.

The averages conceal a wide variety in who does the farming and what they earn. A large farm's net income might be spread among many family members or corporate shareholders. A small farmer might have just a roadside fruit stand.

The census shows that farm operators continue to be mostly white and male, though much of the hired labor force is Latino. The owners' average age is older than the general population, and many of them have jobs off the farm.

The census does not detail the ripple effects of farm production, such as the canneries, wineries, dairy plants and other processors that are a major source of jobs in the north valley.

Nor does the report get into what has happened since 2007, including a drop in milk and nut prices for valley producers and a slowdown in the ethanol boom that had benefited corn growers in the Midwest.

But the census does have plenty for people in search of fairly recent information, whether it's a junior high student needing to know Iowa's hog production or an industry executive who keeps tabs on "sorghum for silage or greenchop."

The census dates to 1840 and is now done every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It relies mainly on a detailed survey filled out by farmers and ranchers of all sizes.

"The Census of Agriculture is a valuable tool that provides the general public with an accurate and comprehensive view of American agriculture," said Tom Vilsack, the new secretary of agriculture, in a news release.