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Sonoma County grape values down, sheep, apples up in 2011


Despite a drop of nearly $41 million in the value of the grape harvest, Sonoma County's diverse agriculture sector saw revenues increase last year for most other major crops, including milk, eggs, apples and lamb.

Overall, the county's agricultural bounty dipped 1.7 percent last year, to $581 million, according to an annual report submitted Tuesday to the Board of Supervisors.

Growth in most of the county's key crops nearly offset a sharp decline in the value of the annual wine grape harvest, by far the dominant crop in Sonoma County, accounting for nearly 60 percent of the county's farm production last year.

The value of the grape harvest fell 11 percent, to $347 million, according to the report by Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar. The size of the grape crop dropped 13 percent, to 166,619 tons, the result of a cool summer that reduced the size of the crop and delayed the onset of harvest, exposing the fruit to fall rains that spread rot through the vineyards.

Though best known for its vineyards that produce world-class wines, the county is also home to an array of small farms that have helped preserve the area's rural feel while feeding the region's residents and shaping its food culture.

Twelve of the county's 15 million-dollar crops posted increases in value last year, according to the report.

Total revenue for processed sheep and lamb doubled to $5.1 million. Gravenstein apples increased 51 percent to $2.6 million, while and other "late variety" apples increased 22 percent to $5 million.

Chicken eggs and other miscellaneous livestock/poultry products increased 17 percent in value to $24 million. Vegetable crops jumped 15 percent to $9.7 million. Grapevine nursery stock and other miscellaneous nursery products increased 49 percent to $7.2 million.

Overall, the agriculture, wine and food processing sector adds nearly $2 billion a year to the county's $24 billion economy. County supervisors noted the impact of farmers and ranchers Tuesday when reviewing the crop report.

"One of the best parts of the job is being able to see this and see what an economic force agriculture is in the county," said Supervisor Mike McGuire.

The crop reports provide key data on the ups and downs of farming over the years. But farmers said it often helps to have a little context to make sense of the numbers.

Rex Williams, a Sebastopol sheep rancher, noted that droughts in New Zealand and Texas were a key reason why the value of lamb doubled last year. Even so, local sheep ranchers found much of that gain offset by higher feed and fuel costs.

"It didn't put any of us in a higher tax bracket, if you know what I mean," said Williams, who with his wife Kerry and their two children were selected this spring as the Sonoma County Farm Bureau's Farm Family of the Year.

The story of offsetting costs was even more dramatic in the dairy industry, which has produced the county's second-largest agricultural product for the past quarter-century.

Farm milk revenue jumped 21 percent to $94 million last year. For 2011, the value of milk averaged $19.54 per hundredweight, considerably better than 2009 when the price had plunged to $12.41.

But last year's average price remained below the estimated cost of production for North Coast dairies of $20.41 per hundredweight, according to the state Department of Food and Agriculture.

And California's minimum milk price since has dropped to less than $15 per hundredweight, said Sebastopol dairy farmer Domenic Carinalli. Production costs remain far greater due to high feed costs.

"The dairy industry is in dire straits," said Carinalli, a member for the executive committee of the California Milk Advisory Board.

The year proved better for apple farmers, who enjoyed the best Gravenstein harvest in a dozen years with 10,000 tons of fruit. Even though rain came during a portion of bloom, the trees enjoyed "a couple of days in there when everything was just right," said Sebastopol farmer Randy Roberts.

Even so, only 2,300 acres of county farms are still producing apples, and only 600 of that amount is growing Gravensteins — down from 11,000 acres of various apple varieties in the county 60 years ago.

To survive, Roberts this year will complete the conversion of all of his orchards to organic production, a move that will open up new markets for his crop.

"We're hoping for good things," he said.

The outlook also is brighter for grape growers this season. Spring weather has favored growers, and there will be more demand for grapes, Linegar said.

"I think we're really well-positioned to have a great year in wine grapes," he said.

Demand for grapes is spurring new plantings around the state.

NovaVine, a Santa Rosa grapevine nursery, has doubled production in the past two years, said CEO Jay Jensen. The company already has sold all its stock for this year and 2013.

"Everybody is scrambling now to get vineyards in," Jensen said.

Lex McCorvey, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, said agriculture continues to drive the county's economy and draw visitors from around the world.

"Wine production and agritourism has put us on the world map as a premier destination," McCorvey said.