Sonoma County 2020 crop report shows milk value goes up, confirms fire impact on wine grapes

The newly released county crop report shows the value of all crops last year was off by 29%, led by a 45% drop for wine grapes amid a harvest cut short by wildfires.|

New data this week confirmed what Sonoma County farmers already knew: 2020 was a punishing year.

Farmers saw a 29% drop in the value of their crops, according to new information from Andrew Smith, the county’s agriculture commissioner.

“Wildfires once again arrived during (2020’s) wine grape harvest, leading to a significant amount of unpicked fruit due to possible smoke taint concerns,” Smith wrote in a report and shared with county supervisors Tuesday.

The global health crisis, as expected, caused problems, too.

“The coronavirus pandemic brought unforeseen impacts to farms, nurseries, supply and labor,” Smith said.

Gross production values in 2020 came in at $680.6 million. That’s a steep drop-off from 2019’s value of $958.5 million, and a figure that is “somewhat depressing” for an industry employing 8,500 laborers in the county, Supervisor Susan Gorin said.

More than half of those workers labor year-round to harvest a vast agricultural bounty that is essential to the county’s economy and its culture.

No industry experienced more devastation in the past few years than Sonoma County’s agricultural cash cow — wine. The crop report’s tally of 2020 wine grapes was another sobering reminder of the disastrous toll from the year’s wildfires.

Total tonnage fell 35.5%, from 229,811 in 2019 to last year’s 148,085. It was the lowest harvest in two decades.

Crop values also were affected, plummeting 45.3% to $351.5 million from $654 million. The yield fell, too, by 35% -- to 2.6 tons per acre, from the previous year’s 4 tons.

The county’s leading grape varieties took a wallop in tonnage and pricing last year from 2019 levels. Top grape cabernet sauvignon fell 32% in tonnage and 45% in per-ton pricing.

Third-ranked pinot noir tonnage dropped by half, but pricing tumbled 20%. No. 2 chardonnay fell by 36% by tonnage, but just 4% by price.

Analysts told the North Bay Business Journal earlier this year the drop in pricing for North Coast cab reflected a near-oversupply situation the premium wine-growing region had been wrestling with since 2017. The 2020 fires brought prices closer into balance.

A second year of drought is expected to have affected the 2021 wine grape crop. Just how bad won’t be known until February 2022 when state officials release new figures.

While Sonoma County’s 2020 wine grape value plummeted 45%, it was offset by a 20% rise in livestock and poultry products -- boosting the milk and wool industries’ value to $190.9 million.

Of that, the value of organic milk from county producers came in as $142.4 million in 2020, up from $113.5 million in 2019.

Dairy farmers also saw a rise in value of conventional milk totaling $15.2 million, compared to $13.5 million from 2019.

Sonoma County dairyman Doug Beretta speculated the value of total livestock and poultry products encompassing milk went up because cows were producing more in 2020 than 2019 or because farmers added more head.

Beretta milks 285 cows on his Santa Rosa dairy farm.

“They could be getting more milk per cow,” he said, adding the “market was flooded” with milk partially because of numerous restaurant shutdowns.

The report also revealed the value of livestock and poultry dictated by cattle, sheep and hogs increased in 2020 versus 2019 to $69.6 million. That’s up from $67.9 million.

Long Table Farm grower Will Holloway has witnessed the rising costs of poultry goods. In 2017, Holloway’s Santa Rosa farm pivoted from poultry to produce, but he has noticed changes in the marketplace.

“The costs of the products have gone up,” he said, noting the price of eggs doubling in the last five years.

“They’ve gone up, and I don’t think they’ll ever come down.”

There were some positives in the agriculture report.

Field crops listed as hay, oats, rye and straw, for example, tallied a value gain in 2020 to $11.2 million.

Apples about evened out with a slight decrease of 3%, despite the industry experiencing an increase in value of Gravenstein apples from 2019. Last year saw less apple tonnage brought to market by 2.9% from 2019 because of a continued lack of processors and inclement weather during the bloom season.

Commercial crab fishing also took a hit, down $400,000 in 2020 to an even $5 million for the county. This is despite commercial fishing grossing a rise of $10.2 million in the ocean’s bounty.

Crab fishermen, in particular, have been confronted with numerous challenges, including increased regulations and reduced wholesale prices to whales pausing their migrations off the coast, forcing a delay in the opening of the season.

Commercial crabbers in the zone have not yet gone out in the waters south of Fort Bragg and north of Monterey.

“It’s been a fiasco,” said Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association Executive Director Mike Conroy. “We’re patiently waiting.”

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