Farmers struggled in 2023 despite high crop values

While Santa Barbara County’s agricultural industry saw a $1.87 billion gross production value in 2023, increased costs and high regulations continue impacting farmers’ ability to survive, Claire Wineman said during the June 18 Board of Supervisors meeting

“The numbers presented today are before any costs and not take-home profit,” the president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties said of the annual Crop and Livestock Report. “Farmers only receive a small portion of the retail sales price. … Not every year is profitable. We face fierce competition from other states and countries with lower costs and fewer labor and environmental protections.” 

click to enlarge Farmers struggled in 2023 despite high crop values
File photo by Caleb Wiseblood
TOP CROP: Despite experiencing $56 million in losses from the 2023 winter storms, strawberries remained Santa Barbara County’s no. 1 crop, with a $775 million gross domestic value.

The Crop and Livestock Report, formerly the Agricultural Crop Report, shares the gross domestic product value of Santa Barbara County’s agricultural activities. The reported $1.87 billion value reflects a 2.8 percent decrease (more than $54 million) from 2022’s $1.9 billion total value, county Agricultural Commissioner Jose Chang told supervisors. 

“Despite the slight decrease, overall agriculture production value has continued to grow,” Chang said, with 2023’s numbers higher than those in 2019, 2020, and 2021. 

Fruit and nut crops make up about 50 percent of the county’s gross production value (more than $930 million)—with strawberries remaining the county’s top crop at $775.3 million, Chang said. 

Cut flower and nursery products jumped from the fourth most valuable crop in 2022 to the second most valuable crop at $122 million—a 28 percent increase in value due to market demand, product stabilization, and increased production, according to the report. 

Livestock products made the county’s top 10 ($46.5 million) for the first time since 2012 due to an increased demand for beef and ranchers being able to retain more land due to the heavy rains. 

Cannabis is not calculated in the county’s total gross production value because it’s illegal at the federal level; however, Santa Barbara County cannabis products saw a $333.3 million total value, which would put it ahead of cut flower and nursery products and wine grapes if it could be included in the total value. 

“If [legalization] happens at the federal level, at that point it could be considered as an agricultural commodity,” Chang said. “If it were, we would absolutely be a higher agricultural industry in Santa Barbara County.”

Despite the county’s success, many farmers still struggled. The 2023 winter storms resulted in $169 million in agricultural losses—primarily in Santa Maria and Guadalupe—with strawberries taking the biggest blow (more than $56 million in crop losses), according to the Crop and Livestock Report. 

“Producers had to repair infrastructure, repair their fields or in many cases not access fields for the growing cycle,” Chang said. “The weather and climate change is making it more challenging for them; the storms are leading to an environment for pests and diseases to thrive and be a little bit more complicated to control those pests.” 

The county has worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help farmers cope with the losses, but many farmers don’t qualify for assistance because of their income, Chang said. 

While people may see large numbers from the crop report, 4th District Supervisor Bob Nelson said it’s important to recognize that it’s a challenging time to be a farmer. 

“The trend you are seeing is consolidation, where our small farms aren’t able to exist anymore because of the burdens and competition that exists in California,” Nelson said. “This is the best place to grow these commodities in the world, but we also have a lot of challenges ahead of us.”

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