A strong grape harvest and growing demand for young vines boosted Sonoma County agriculture above $821 million in value in 2012, a 41 percent increase over 2011, according to a new report from the county agricultural commissioner.

The jump was driven largely by a record year for wine grapes, with 267,000 tons worth almost $583 million, an increase of 60 percent over 2011, which was considered a poor year.

"We're in a recovery phase after 2010 and 2011 were so low .<TH>.<TH>. everyone's feeling good," said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers.

Sales from plant nurseries jumped about $9 million in 2012, to $33.5 million. That was driven by huge demand for grape vines, both rootstock and varietals for grafting, a potentially lucrative new market for the county.

Santa Rosa's Novavine has nearly doubled its sales in three years, from 3.5 million vines to about 6.5 million this year and next, CEO Jay Jensen said. Even after expanding its facilities, the company is sold out for 2014 and is accepting orders for 2015.

"It goes back to the recession," he said. "A lot of vineyards and large operators just didn't do plantings," resulting in huge pent-up demand.

Now that the economy is turning around, and a longstanding surplus of bulk wine for value-priced labels is used up, producers nationwide are in a frenzy of replanting, and some are setting up large new vineyards for bulk-wine production, he said.

Sales are particularly strong in Texas and the Mid-Atlantic, though the company is shipping as far as China, he said.

Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar will present the annual crop report to the supervisors today<NO1>Tuesday<NO>. He said the numbers in the report probably represent the new status quo for the Sonoma County's agriculture sector for years to come.

After years of growth in vineyard acreage, the amount of easily planted land is used up, he said. The acreage probably will stabilize a bit above 60,000. It was just over 59,000 in 2012 and hit a high of around 63,000 before the recession, a number that growers agree is probably close to the upper limit of the county's available vineyard space.

Troubled older farm sectors, such as the once powerful apple and dairy sectors, seem to have reached a stable floor after years of decline, Linegar said. Farmers in both categories have been selling into niche markets, including the increasing demand for Sonoma County apples in hard cider production, and tapping into the value-adding power of the organic label.

"We do have to have more specialized, more boutique, high-end products to make it profitable to farm," he said, now that bulk production of staples such as milk and apples has moved to other regions and overseas.

Apple farmer Lee Walker concurred. About three years ago, he decided to close his family farm near Graton but then agreed to give it one last chance, focusing on sales of fresh apples to high-end markets and direct to consumers. That strategy worked surprisingly well and kept the business open, he said, particularly because Sonoma County's signature variety, Gravenstein, has become a high-demand specialty crop.

Economic analysts say the crop report understates the overall value of agriculture to the economy. Ben Stone, Executive Director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, said agriculture probably accounts for about a third of the $18 billion in economic activity every year if you consider the secondary effects of wine production, which is considered manufacturing, tourism and the ripple effects on the retail trade.

<CW-18>The Sonoma County Farm Bureau, the Winegrowers and the Sonoma County Vintners are working on a report to more accurately determine the value of farming to the county economy, said Lex McCorvey, executive director of the farm bureau</CW>.

"The value of crops produced is only the tip of the iceberg," he said. "When made into wines, cheeses or other consumer products, our diverse crop base actually generates billions of dollars and creates thousands of jobs in Sonoma County."

You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully @pressdemocrat.com.