It’s going to take a lot to dethrone the strawberry as the region’s top crop.
But there are plenty of signs that the juicy red fruit that’s a year round sensation may not last forever at the top of the agribusiness pile.
The retirement of the Dullam family, reported earlier in the Business Times, and the closing of Oxnard’s Hiji Brothers berry operations sent a wave of layoffs through the industry in recent weeks.
Berries account for about a third of Ventura County’s $2 billion agriculture industry; they’re No. 1 in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties as well.
Talking to a large grower from the Santa Maria Valley recently we learned of the extreme toll that labor rules, drought and competition from low-cost production in Baja and elsewhere in Mexico have taken on the region’s producers.
The broader question is whether this is a cyclical downturn or a structural change in the industry. For Central Coast agriculture, this could be the biggest disruption since the collapse of the lima bean empires that dominated farming for the first half of the 20th Century. Here’s a closer look:
• Berries don’t yet have a rival in sight. Fast growth in alternative crops that are less labor intensive — raspberries and blueberries — have not yet threatened strawberry’s No. 1 status. Citrus and avocados, as well as wine grapes, are once-a-year crops that don’t have the year round volume that makes strawberries a cash cow.
• For those who see a structural change, it’s a lot about labor costs. A 2013 court case sparked a host of copycat lawsuits that cost farmers millions. Labor rules that over time will impose California’s coming $15 per hour minimum wage on what’s now pay-for-production will have an even bigger impact. And the enduring competition from Mexico, which prices its labor far below U.S. workers, could be a change.
• Finally there is the simple fact that Ventura County and the Central Coast have been geniuses as competing globally for specialized crops where they have some control over supply and pricing.
As crops get more and more commoditized it is the high-volume, low-cost producers that take over.
If strawberries are going to remain No. 1, growers will need to sort out longer-term and lower-cost water supplies as well as ways to become more adept at mechanized farming to keep labor costs low.
It’s too early to count out the region’s resourceful strawberry farmers. But as the Golden State Warriors found out, you don’t always get to remain No. 1.
San Luis Obispo County investments will pay off
As San Luis Obispo County faces the 2025 closing of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, it’s important to note that it is not entirely without resources to navigate the big economic change.
Through recession and recovery, the county has invested in its Economic Vitality Corp., created an effective economic forecast program, kept its chambers of commerce vital and created one-time programs like the Economic Symposium we attended in Arroyo Grande on June 20. These create dialogue and leadership that’s a big asset in a time of change.