Ag values down, organic milk up


Marin County’s agriculture commissioner last week presented his annual crop and livestock report to the Board of Supervisors, flagging a downward trend in the value of cattle, hay, fruit, vegetables and aquaculture but a steady value for milk, which accounted for 45 percent of the total gross value of agriculture in 2016. 

“A farmer might reference this report abstractly, to see trends and to discover any opportunities in a particular market,” agriculture commissioner Stacy Carlsen said, referencing the 20 percent rise in silage value in 2016 as a good example of an opportunity. “But one thing about agriculture is that producers really don’t have any control regarding the pricing, and they just keep marching on.” 

Mirroring a national trend, Mr. Carlsen said, Marin saw a 53 percent decrease in the value of cattle, from $1,596 per head in 2015 to $724 last year. Yet prices were at historic highs in recent years, said David Evans, founder and co-executive of Marin Sun Farms. 

Though many factors led to those higher values, Mr. Evans singled out the drought: recent dry years resulted in fewer animals, and that scarcity drove up prices. 

He added that the higher prices did not necessarily translate to more income for farmers, as there was less product. 

“But, now, we’ve been blessed with more rain, which means more pasture, more pounds of beef to sell and more income for the farm,” he said. Mr. Evans called the 2016 value decline a “shock” but described that the overall impact on producers was not definitively bad. The cattle market has come back a little bit in 2017, he added.  

Yet the value of cattle was not the only decline noted in the report. Crop values for hay (as opposed to silage, which is fermented hay, oats or other field crops used for animal feed) dropped by 47 percent, fruit and vegetables dropped by 29 percent and aquaculture fell by 26

Meanwhile, poultry production jumped (the value rose 12 percent), likely due to an increase in niche markets, and the winter’s rains increased the total value of the wine grape industry by 150 percent.

Overall, though the total gross value of livestock and crops slipped 13 percent in 2016, the year’s total was still nearly $15 million more than the year-by-year average from the last 10 years. 

Also notable was the sustained boom in organic milk, whose value today equals virtually all of Marin’s milk value in 2006. Prices of organic milk are now more than double conventional milk prices. Though production of both was down 5 percent in 2016 for a total value of $39 million, it accounted for 5 percent more of the total gross value of Marin agriculture than it did in 2015. 

“[Organic milk] is having a positive effect on our environmental resource protection, while giving us an economic bonus of value added,” Mr. Carlsen said in the county’s press release on the crop report. “There’s no downside to trying to protect the environment.”

Mr. Carlsen told the Light that many conventional milk producers are en route to their organic certification, a three-year endeavor. He also said that the point at which the price for organic milk lowers due to a glut of supply is being monitoring closely. 

“We’re not there yet,” he said.