Agriculture in California


Agriculture is a significant sector in California's economy, producing nearly $50 billion in revenue in 2018. There are more than 400 commodity crops grown across California, including a significant portion of all fruits, vegetables, and nuts for the United States.[1] In 2017, there were 77,100 unique farms and ranches in the state, operating across 25.3 million acres (102,000 square kilometres) of land. The average farm size was 328 acres (133 ha), significantly less than the average farm size in the U.S. of 444 acres (180 ha).[1]

California produces almonds worth $5.3 billion every year. That is 100% of commercial almonds in the United States, and 100% of all of North America, and 80% of commercial almonds around the world.

Because of its scale, and the naturally arid climate, the agricultural sector uses about 40% of California's water consumption.[2] The agricultural sector is also connected to other negative environmental and the health impacts, including being one of the principle sources of water pollution.


Rice paddies just north of Sacramento, California

The table below shows the top 21 commodities, by dollar value, produced in California in 2017.[1] Between 2016 and 2017, there were increases by more than 2% in total value for the following crops: almonds, dairy, grapes and cattle. The largest increase was seen in almond sales, which increased by 10.9% from 2016 to 2017, due to both increases in crop volume produced and the average market price for a pound of almonds. Dairy sales increased 8.2% from 2016 to 2017 due to an increase in the average price for milk, despite a slight decrease in total milk production. Grape sales increased by 3.1% from 2016 to 2017 due to an increase in price per ton of grape (from $832/ ton in 2016 to $847/ton in 2017). Cattle sales also increased by 2.7% from 2016 to 2017.[3][4]

Crop Annual value (billions of USD)
Dairy (milk and cream) $6.56
Grapes $5.79
Almonds $5.60
Cannabis (legal sales) $3.1
Strawberries $3.1
Cattle and Calves $2.63
Lettuce $2.51
Walnuts $1.59
Tomatoes $1.05
Pistachios $1.01
Broilers (poultry) $0.94
Oranges $0.93
Broccoli $0.85
Hay $0.76
Rice $0.68
Carrots $0.62
Lemons $0.61
Tangerines $0.54
Cotton $0.48
Raspberries $0.45
Garlic $0.39

Specific cropsEdit


Almond trees in California's San Joaquin Valley

California produces most of the world's almonds and 100% of the United States commercial supply.[5] Although almonds are not native to California, a hot, dry Mediterranean climate and developed water infrastructure create favorable conditions for commercial cultivation of the crop.[6] In 2020, there were 1.25 million acres devoted to almond farming in California, producing 2.8 billion pounds.[7]

Almonds are the state's most valuable export crop.[5] Farmers exported $4.9 billion worth to foreign countries in 2019, about 22% of the state's total agricultural exports, with the European Union, China and India as leading destinations.[5]

California almond farms import the majority of US commercial bee colonies to the state of California during the almond pollination season. Almond production in California is the source of several major environmental problems, including high demand for water and abundant waste of almond shells. As of 2021, due to a historic long-term drought in California, production was forecast to decline, and many almond orchards were being abandoned.[8]

Shipping disruptions, reductions in consumer spending, and trade disputes during 2020-21 caused by the COVID-19 pandemic affected logistics and pricing of almonds.[7]


California farms produce 90% of all U.S.-grown avocados, with the great majority being Hass variety.[9] In 2018, the state grew 300 million pounds. Drought and heat can significantly reduce the harvest in some years.[10]


The Mediterranean climate affords a lower rate of post-harvest disease than in some of the world's growing regions, similar to the Mediterranean itself, Australia, and most of South Africa.[11]: 6  Postharvest problems that do occur tend to be mostly blue and green Penicillium spp.[11]: 6 


Dairy is a significant part of the agricultural output of the state of California. California ranks first out of the fifty states in dairy production. The state has about 1,300 dairy farms and 1.727 million dairy cows.[12] The state produces nearly 20 percent of all U.S. milk.[13]


Over 90% of US production is grown here, and most of that in the Coachella Valley.[14] The distant second is Arizona.[14] The 2020 harvest was 49,300 short tons (44,700 t) from 12,500 acres (5,100 ha), for a yield of 3.94 short tons per acre (8.8 t/ha).[14] The year's crop sold for $114 million, an average of $2,320 per short ton ($2,560/t).[14] The harvest extends from the beginning of October to the middle of December.[15]

The detection of the red palm weevil (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus) in 2010 was very concerning to this valuable industry.[16] A tremendous effort was made to trap and eradicate, and the last sighting was on January 18th, 2012. Three years later on January 20th, 2015 USDA's APHIS declared the eradication successful.[16] Its relative the South American palm weevil (R. palmarum) has killed increasing numbers of Canary Island date palms (Phoenix canariensis) and is expected to become a significant pest of dates in the future.[16]


Calimyrna is a common cultivar here.[17][18]

Navel orangeworm (Amyelois transitella) is significant in commodity figs[17][18] (see § Pests below).

Fish and shellfishEdit

Relative to traditional farming, aquaculture is a small part of California's agricultural economy, generating only $175 million in 2014.[19] Oysters, abalone, mussels, channel catfish, rainbow trout, and salmon are farmed commercially.[20]


The 2020 table grape harvest was worth $2.12 billion[21] while wine grapes brought in $1.7 billion, down 15.3% year-on-year. By weight this was 17% lower versus 2018.[22]

The seriousness of Pierce's disease (Uncinula necator) has been recognized since at least 1859 when Newton B. Pierce discovered it in the northern grape district.[22] Over the next few years he watched it spread to the south. Frederic Bioletti called it the only serious fungal disease the industry suffered from, and so it has remained ever since.[22][23]

For more about wine grapes specifically see § Wine below.


Cannabis is estimated to be the largest cash crop in California with a value of more than $11 billion.[24] The state provided most of the cannabis consumed in the United States prior to legalization which was intended to provide a transition to legal, licensed growing. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires a detailed analysis of the environmental impact of growers operations. Statewide, 208 growers had obtained regular, annual licenses by July 2019. At this point of some 18 months into legalization, 1,532 growers were still operating on provisional permits as they went through the CEQA process that requires extensive paperwork.[25] Smaller farms were given five years to become established under legalization before larger growers were allowed to enter the market.[26] Under the regulations set to expire in 2023, growers can have only one medium licence but there is no limit on the number of small licenses an individual grower can have. This loophole has allowed larger growers to operate.[27]

Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties have long been known as Northern California's Emerald Triangle as it is estimated that 60 percent or more of all cannabis consumed in the United States is grown there. Registering and applying for permits has not been an easy decision for many long time growers in these three counties.[28]

In Santa Barbara County, cannabis growing has taken over greenhouses that formerly grew flowers. In the first four months of legalization, the county had almost 800 permits issued for cultivators, the most of any county in the state.[27]

Calaveras County registered more than seven hundred cultivators after county voters approved a tax in 2016.[29]


Ferrisia gilli is an ecnomically significant pest of pistachio here.[30] F. gilli was formerly known as a California population of F. virgata, only being studied sufficiently to recognize that it is distinguishable from F. virgata due to its severe impact on pistachio and almond in this state.[30]


Black heart (or "heart rot") is one of the most common diseases, as it is around the world.[11]: 192  Out of the group of causative Alternaria spp., here Luo et al., 2017 find it is caused by Alternaria alternata and A. arborescens.[11]: 192 [31] Michailides et al., 2008 finds the 'Wonderful' cultivar can suffer at a rate of 10% or more here.[11]: 192 [32]: S105 


By 2006, California produced the second-largest rice crop in the United States,[33] after Arkansas, with production concentrated in six counties north of Sacramento.[34]

California's production is dominated by short- and medium-grain japonica varieties, including cultivars developed for the local climate such as Calrose, which makes up as much as 85% of the state's crop.[35]


The use of soil fumigation was highly praised and widely recommended by the California Strawberry Advisory Board in 1967.[36] So vital was the most common fumigant – methyl bromide – that the ongoing phase out of MB has sent growers and researchers scrambling for alternatives.[36] One alternative specifically for nematodes is 1,3-Dichloropropene, however some of the finely textured soils in some of the state's soil regions reduce its efficacy, and as of 2010 there are restrictions in some townships on maximum rates.[36] The California Strawberry Commission (the Board's new name) is the Agriculture Department body which advocates for strawberry growers. Some towns have annual strawberry festivals, see Strawberry festival § United States. The Driscoll's company began with strawberries here and still grows and sells here, although they have since expanded to other states, countries, and types of berries.


California walnuts account for nearly all the walnuts grown in the United States. In 2017, walnut production was the seventh most valuable agricultural commodity in California, valued at $1.59 billion in cash receipts.[37]


Vineyards in the Napa Valley AVA

California wine production has a rich viticulture history since 1680 when Spanish Jesuit missionaries planted Vitis vinifera vines native to the Mediterranean region in their established missions to produce wine for religious services. In the 1770s, Spanish missionaries continued the practice under the direction of the Father Junípero Serra who planted California's first vineyard at Mission San Juan Capistrano.[38][39]

Its contemporary wine production grew steadily since the end of Prohibition, but mostly known for its sweet port-style and jug wine products. As the market favored French brands, California’s table wine business grew modestly,[40] but quickly gained international prominence at the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, when renown French oenophiles, in a blind tasting, ranked the California wines higher than the primer French labels in the Chardonnay (white) and Cabernet Sauvignon (red) categories.[41] The result caused a ‘shock’ in viticulture industry since France was regarded as foremost producer of the world's finest table wines. This revolutionary event attributed to expanding the recognition and prestige of vintners in the New World, specifically, the Golden State.[42]

The state produces about ninety percent of the American wine supply and is the fourth largest wine producer among the world's independent nations.[43][44] It has more than 1,200 wineries ranging from home-grown and small boutiques to large corporations with international distribution.[43]


Central ValleyEdit

The Central Valley of California is one of the world's most productive agricultural regions.[45] More than 230 crops are grown there.[45] On less than one percent of the total farmland in the United States, the Central Valley produces eight percent of the nation's agricultural output by value: US$43.5 billion in 2013.[46] The top four counties in agricultural sales (2007 data) in the U.S. are in California's Central Valley: Fresno ($3.731 billion), Tulare ($3.335 billion), Kern ($3.204 billion), and Merced ($2.330 billion).[47][48]

Its agricultural productivity relies on irrigation both from surface water diversions and from groundwater pumping (wells). About one-sixth of the irrigated land in the U.S. is in the Central Valley.[49] Central Valley groundwater pollution is an ongoing environmental issue in the area.

There are 6,000 almond growers who produced more than 1.8 million tonnes in 2013, about 60 percent of the world's supply.[50][51]

Salinas ValleyEdit

The Salinas Valley, located within Monterey County, is one of the most productive agricultural regions in California. Monterey County grows over 50% of the national production for leaf lettuce, head lettuce, and celery. It also produces significant percentages of the country's broccoli, spinach, cauliflower, and strawberries.[52] The area is also a significant producer of organic produce, with 68,868 acres in cultivation and annual sales of $412,347,000.

Organic farmingEdit

Organic cultivation of mixed vegetables in Capay, California

California has more certified organic farms than any other state. In 2016, more than a million acres in the state were certified organic.[53] CA grows 90% or more of the U.S. production of Organic almonds, artichokes, avocados, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, dates, figs, grapes, strawberries, lemons, lettuce, plums, and walnuts.[54]

There are two primary laws that regulate organic production: at a federal level, the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and at a state level, the California Organic Food and Farming Act of 2016. Both laws lay out standards for production, processing, handling and retailing that must be followed in order to label a product as "organic". The USDA, California Organic Products Advisory Committee, and the California County Agricultural Commissioners monitor and ensure these standards are followed by administering enforcement actions for any violations.[55]

Any agricultural operation selling more than $5,000 in products per year is required to acquire organic certification, if they seek to sell their products under the organic label. Multiple organizations are accredited to certify operations organic.[56]

Environmental and natural resourcesEdit

Water useEdit

The largest overall water users in California are the environment, agriculture and urban/ municipal uses.[2] In an average year, about 40% of California's water consumption, or approximately 34.1 million acre-foot (4.21×1010 cubic metres), is used for agricultural purposes. However, the exact proportion of total water usage for agriculture can vary widely between 'wet' and 'dry' years, where in wet years, agriculture is responsible for closer to 30% of total water consumption and in dry years, agriculture is responsible for closer to 60% of total water consumption.[2] Water for agriculture is used to irrigate more than 9 million acres (36,000 square kilometres) of cropland annually.[57]

Water for agriculture comes from two primary sources: surface water and groundwater. Surface waters include natural lakes, rivers, and streams, as well as large network of human-built reservoirs and a complex distribution system of aqueducts and canals that carry water from the location of the source to the agricultural users.[57] Groundwater aquifers range in depth and accessibility across the state, and historically have been used to supplement surface water supplies in dry years.[58]

California is one of the top five states in water use for livestock. Water withdrawals for livestock use in California were 101–250 million US gallons (380,000,000–950,000,000 l)/day in 2010.[59]

Water qualityEdit

Agricultural impacts on water quality concentrate around concerns of the following contaminants: nutrients, pesticides, salts, pollutants, sediment, pathogens, and heavy metals.[60] These contaminants enter water bodies through above-ground surface runoff of rainwater or excess irrigation water, or percolating through the soil and leaching into groundwater.  Water quality concerns affect most regions of the state and tend to be exacerbated during periods of drought.[61]

At present, all irrigated agricultural operations in the State are required to participate in the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program.[62] The regulatory program began after the California Legislature passed Senate Bill 390 (SB390) in 1990, that eliminated a blanket waiver for agricultural operations to discharge wastewater without any specific environmental standards.[63]

Water supplyEdit

The invasive quagga- and zebra-​mussels reached the state in about 2006 and threaten the already limited supply of farm water.[64] The mussels have continued to spread and present an ever-expanding threat to pipelines.[65]



Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Indigenous peoples of California, with diverse societies mainly reliant on hunter-gatherer methods, practiced seed collection and forest gardening. Some California hunter-gatherer tribes, including the Owens Valley Paiute, developed irrigation.[66]

In the late 1700s, Franciscan missionaries established Spanish missions in California. Like earlier Spanish missions established in Baja California, these missions were surrounded by agricultural land, growing crops from Europe and the Americas, and raising animals originating from Europe. Indigenous workers from Baja California made up a large part of the initial labor force on California missions.[67] In the early 1800s, this flow of laborers from Baja California had largely stopped, and the missions relied on converts from local tribes. By 1806, over 20,000 Mission Indians were "attached" to the California missions. As missions were expected to become largely self-sufficient, farming was a critically important Mission industry. George Vancouver visited Mission San Buenaventura in 1793 and noted the wide variety of crops grown: apples, pears, plums, figs, oranges, grapes, peaches, pomegranates, plantain, banana, coconut, sugar cane, indigo, various herbs, and prickly pear.[68] Livestock was raised for meat, wool, leather, and tallow, and for cultivating the land. In 1832, at the height of their prosperity, the missions collectively owned over 150,000 cattle and over 120,000 sheep. They also raised horses, goats, and pigs.[69]

While the Spanish were the most successful farmers active in California in the early 1800s, they were not the only ones. In 1812, the Russians established Fort Ross in what is now Sonoma County, California, and intended the fort in part as an agricultural supply point for other Russian activity on the west coast. Despite Russian plans for the colony, agriculture at Fort Ross had low yields, significantly lower than the California missions. Inefficient farming methods, labour shortages, coastal fog, and rodents all contributed to limit agriculture at the fort.[70]

The Spanish (1784–1810) and Mexican (1819–1846) governments made a large number of land grants to private individuals from 1785 to 1846. These ranchos included land taken from the missions following government-imposed secularization in 1833, after which the missions' productivity declined significantly. The ranchos were focused on cattle, and hides and tallow were their main products. There was no market for large quantities of beef (before refrigeration and railroads) until the California Gold Rush.


In 1848, before the Gold Rush, the population of CA was approximately 15,000, not counting Native Americans. By 1852, there were over 250,000 people in the state.[71] and by 1870, 560,000 people.[72] This rapid population growth drove an increase in importation of agricultural products, and, within a few years, a massive growth in in-state agriculture. In the first years of the gold rush, the state relied on agricultural imports arriving by ship, from Australia, Chile, and Hawaii. During these years, there was rapid growth in vegetable farming for local markets. This was followed by an expansion of grain farming.[71] A shift in the economic dominance of grain farming over cattle raising was marked by the passage of the California "No-Fence Law" of 1874. This repealed the Trespass Act of 1850, which had required farmers to protect their planted fields from free-ranging cattle. The repeal of the Trespass Act required that ranchers fence stock in, rather than farmers fencing cattle out. The ranchers were faced with either the high expense of fencing large grazing tracts or selling their cattle at ruinous prices.[73][74] By the 1890s, California was 2nd in US wheat production, producing over one million tons of wheat per year,[71] but monocrop wheat farming had depleted the soil in some areas resulting in reduced crops.[75]

Irrigation was almost nonexistent in California in 1850, but by 1899, 12 percent of the state's improved farmland was irrigated.[75]

Luther Burbank moved to Santa Rosa, California in 1875, and developed numerous commercially successful varieties of plants over the next 50 years.


The 1902 Newlands Reclamation Act funded irrigation projects on arid lands in 20 states including California.

In 1905, the California legislature passed the University Farm Bill, which called for the establishment of a farm school for the University of California (at the time, Berkeley was the sole campus of the university).[76] The commission took a year to select a site for the campus, a tiny town then known as Davisville.[76] UC Davis opened its doors as the "University Farm" to 40 degree students (all male) from UC Berkeley in January 1909.

In 1919, the California Department of Food and Agriculture was established. The department covers state food safety, state protection from invasive species, and promoting the state's agricultural industry.

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s drove many people from the American prairie, and a significant number of these economic migrants relocated to California. Poor migrants from Oklahoma and nearby states were sometimes referred to as Okies, generally a pejorative term. In 1933, the state saw a number of agricultural labor strikes, with the largest actions against cotton growers. Cherry, grape, peach, pear, sugar beet, and tomato workers were also involved.

In 1942, the United States began the Bracero program. Lasting until 1964, this agreement established decent living conditions and a minimum wage for Mexican workers in the United States.


In 1965, the Williamson Act became law, providing property tax relief to owners of California farmland and open-space land in exchange for agreement that the land will not be developed.

The 1960s and 1970s saw major farm worker strikes including the 1965 Delano grape strike and the 1970 Salad Bowl strike. In 1975, the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 was enacted,[77] establishing the right to collective bargaining for farmworkers in California, a first in U.S. history.[78] Individuals with prominent roles in farm worker organizing in this period include Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Larry Itliong, and Philip Vera Cruz.


In the 2000s and 2010s, Califorians voted for propositions which established new protections for farm animals. 2008 California Proposition 2 and 2018 California Proposition 12 both established minimum requirements for farming egg-laying hens, breeding pigs, and calves raised for veal. Few veal and pig factory farm operations exist in California, so these propositions mostly affect farmers who raise California's 15 million egg-laying hens.[79]

Agricultural crimeEdit

California nut crimes have involved the theft of millions of dollars of nuts (almonds, pistachios, cashews and pecans) in multiple incidents since 2013.[80][81]

Water theft for agriculture has been an issue in times of drought, with the State assessing fines up to $1.5 Million.[82][83]

Pests and diseasesEdit

Despite its expansive geography some pests are so severe, so polyphagous, and/or so wide-ranging as to be economically significant to the entire state. The Navel orangeworm (Amyelois transitella) first entered from Arizona in 1942 and quickly began attacking walnut, date palm, and fig (despite its common name, being only a minor pest of citrus).[84] In the decades since it has become a notorious pest of almond, pistachio,[84][17] and pomegranate and remains problematic for walnut[17] and fig[17][18] as well.[17]

The light brown apple moth (Epiphyas postvittana, often abbreviated to LBAM) is a leafroller moth belonging to the lepidopteran family Tortricidae.[85] Despite its common name it is a pest of a wide range of crops, not just apples.[85] The moth was confirmed to be present in California in 2007, and spraying programs in 2007-2008 lead to the Light brown apple moth controversy.[85][86]: 233  Tavener et al., 2011 finds novaluron works well but only when carried by horticultural mineral oil.[87]: 56 [88]

In early 2012 a previously unknown plant disease (a Fusarium) and vector (a Euwallacea, preliminarily termed the polyphagous shot hole borer) were detected in Los Angeles and Orange Counties.[89][90] As all Euwallacea in both their native and invasive ranges, this insect prefers to infest hosts in this area in locations which are stressful due to their unnaturalness, such as urban ornamental plantings and orchards.[89][90]


As with the entire country there is USDA subsidized crop insurance for the state. The Risk Management Agency provides various insurance schemes and deadlines by County and by crop.[91]


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External linksEdit

  • California Agricultural Statistics Review 2017-2018 from the California Department of Food and Agriculture