Lower ag values par for course, county says

06/28/2018

A drop in organic milk prices brought down total agricultural gross values nearly 10 percent in Marin last year, according to the county’s annual livestock and crop report released last week.

“The organic market is being congested, for lack of a better term,” Stacy Carlsen, Marin’s agricultural commissioner who presented the report to the Board of Supervisors for approval last Tuesday, said. “I saw this coming—virtually all of the dairies in Marin, save two or three, have converted to organic now.” 

He added that the price drops reflect a ripple effect from higher volumes being produced across the country.

In 2017, total gross value for agricultural crops and products in Marin was $87,198,000. Milk, Marin’s top commodity, accounted for 39 percent at $34,153,000. That’s a drop of $8,982,000 in milk value since 2016, accounting for the majority of the 10 percent decrease in total agricultural gross returns. 

Though prices were down both for organic and conventional milk, the former was the most drastic. Measured by units of 100 pounds, organic milk prices dropped by nearly $7, or 19 percent. 

Local dairyman Albert Straus said that his business has not been affected by the decline, however. He attributes that success to his close work with his nine supply farms in Marin and Sonoma Counties; by controlling volume, they can keep premium prices for organic milk. Other farms often have to accept conventional prices if there is a glut, he said. 

“I’m encouraging other organic farms to work with their buyers to manage supply and maintain pricing like this,” Mr. Straus, who examines his farms’ sales quarterly, said. He said there had been no change for his company in 2017, though this year has already seen a 5 percent decline. 

For his part, Mr. Carlsen remained optimistic about the booming organic milk industry and said that, at a certain threshold of production, these ups and downs become an integral part of any agricultural commodity. 

The important part, Mr. Carlsen said, was that the production of a healthier and more sustainable product was on the rise in the county. 

He gave a special shout-out to the farms on Point Reyes, which he said account for 22 percent of the county’s total organic milk production. 

“They have the highest standards, as they comply not only with organic certification requirements but also those required by the park service to protect the environment—this is what consumers are looking for,” he said.  

Other commodities in Marin have remained relatively stable. Poultry, which brought in the second highest gross returns in Marin after milk, dropped just 7 percent in value in 2017 from the year before; pasture, which ranked third in total revenue, was down just 1 percent. 

The fourth ranking, cattle, was up 2 percent, which was welcome news considering the last few years have seen large market fluctuations. The county saw a 53 percent decrease in the value of cattle, from $1,596 per head in 2015 to $724 in 2016, though prices were at historic highs in the years before due to drought. Scarcity had driven up prices.

There were a few other notable declines, though they had less impact on the overall returns. The gross value of silage fell by 23 percent since 2016 and nursery products by 17 percent.

The production of other crops is on the rise. The gross value of fruits and vegetables—which Mr. Carlsen said in Marin come from virtually all small, organic producers—rose 17 percent to $3,987,000. 

Aquaculture also increased 14 percent due to increased clam and oyster production. And wine grape production continues to grow after unfavorable conditions in 2015, with acreage up to 195 acres and values up 3 percent since 2016.

Another noteworthy element of the report was the mention of Japanese knotweed, an invasive that’s particularly problematic along both Lagunitas and San Geronimo Creeks. The knotweed is considered among the top 10 most aggressive, destructive and invasive plants worldwide and was given the highest pest rating by the state’s food and agriculture department. 

The knotweed, tenacious, fast-growing and strong enough to penetrate concrete, presents threats to both ecosystems and private property. The county’s agriculture department is collaborating with local organizations to remove it from watersheds, Mr. Carlsen said. 

 

The full report can be found online at marincounty.org/depts/ag/crop-reports.