Crop report shows healthy milk market

06/24/2020

The value of Marin’s agricultural production rose by a modest four percent last year thanks to rebounding values of milk and livestock, according to the county’s annual crop and livestock report released last week. 

The county’s top commodity continues to be organic milk. Between 2018 and 2019, its value rose by 17 percent. That’s the largest jump from one year to another since a crash in 2017 when a glut in the national market lowered values. Now, prices may be stabilizing. 

“Organic milk is our predominant commodity, and I’m pleased not just in terms of the values but for the community benefits,” said Stacy Carlsen, the county’s ag commissioner. “Healthy soils, healthy water, healthy food and clean food: We celebrate that.”

Meanwhile, conventional milk values nose-dived last year by 29 percent. Out of the 22 dairies operating in Marin, however, just three are conventional. Marin’s organic milk sales amounted to $32,836,000 in 2019; conventional milk brought in $2,239,000. 

Local dairyman Albert Straus has been able to shield his 12 local supply dairies from fluctuating organic pricing in recent years, in part by continuously adjusting production. The shelter order, which caused big buyers to disappear overnight, has posed a particular challenge. 

“2019 was another lifetime ago,” Mr. Straus said. “There have been all these changes in distribution, and we had too much milk and had to adjust to make that work.”

On May 1, he reduced production in all of his supply dairies by 10 percent to keep prices the same. Now, the market appears to be bouncing back, including from increased retail, and Mr. Straus said he plans to increase his suppliers’ production by 5 percent on July 1. The reductions have not yet affected employment at the dairies.

Cattle climbed by 4 percent in value in 2019, with the overall number of head sold falling slightly from 14,700 to 14,561 while the price per head jumped from $965 to $1,013. Recent years have seen huge fluctuations in this market: Cattle saw a 53 percent decrease in value in 2016, yet previous prices had reached a historic high, reflecting scarcities caused by drought. 

The value of sheep increased significantly last year, by 27 percent. 

Jim Jensen, a sixth-generation rancher in Tomales, explained that demand for lamb has risen across the Bay Area over the past four or five years, but that the pandemic has caused significant disruptions, limiting available markets and lowering prices. 

“Lamb is a product used by restaurants and food service. With all those outlets closed, it creates backups to the supply chain, bottlenecks, and ultimately at the farm gate the farmer feels the hit,” Mr. Jensen wrote. “Lambs worth about $200 last year at this time, are only worth about $100 on the commodity market, if you can even find a buyer.” 

Yet, he added, “Those who have invested in other markets such as shipping whole or half a lamb direct to the consumer when it is ready seasonally are booming with demand, so those efforts have paid off and likely are the way of the future.”

Valued higher than sheep and cattle combined, poultry remains the second largest commodity in Marin following milk, though it dropped by 13 percent in 2019. 

On the other hand, aquaculture value went up by 34 percent last year. Terry Sawyer, the co-owner of the largest shellfish business on Tomales Bay, Hog Island Oyster Company, said yields were higher across the board in 2019 thanks to favorable ocean and weather conditions. 

Hog Island’s sales typically grow each year, not because of increasing production on Tomales Bay but because it purchases more oysters from other places to keep up with demand. The company opened a new restaurant in Larkspur earlier this year. 

Yet the oyster business has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. In April, Mr. Sawyer said Hog Island had furloughed 90 percent of its 300 employees and closed or greatly reduced operations at the company’s five restaurants. The other local companies were in the same boat.  

Mr. Sawyer said this week that sales have rebounded to around 30 to 40 percent of normal, and this month he re-opened the last-remaining closed restaurant for outdoor dining. 

For the other ag industries in Marin, values were up and down in 2019. The value of fruits and vegetables dropped 13 percent, which Mr. Carlsen attributed to late rains in the spring of 2019 that postponed the start of the growing season. The rain helped silage production, however; it rose from a total of 13,200 tons to 18,529 tons despite a price drop. 

Wine grapes were up by 12 percent due to good yields, and nursery products rose by 5 percent. 

The four percent rise in total gross value follows an 8 percent rise in 2018 and a 10 percent decline in 2017—both largely driven by the value of organic milk.