California Farmland: The Largest Food Producer In The US
California is a dominant force in the world of agriculture. Among the hundreds of commodities California’s farms produce, there are several categories in which the state is a standout national leader – and, in many cases, the sole producer. In fact, California produces almost all of the US' almonds, apricots, dates, figs, kiwi fruit, nectarines, olives, pistachios, prunes, and walnuts. The state is also a leading producer of avocados, grapes, lemons, melons, peaches, plums, and strawberries.
In the last ten years, California has single-handedly produced almost 75% of the nation’s annual production of fruit and nuts. This outsized share of the value of crop production comes from less than 4% of the country’s farmland acres, making cropland in California one of the most economically diverse and productive types of farmland, not just in the US but across the world.
California farms are not only critical to meeting the demands of the US, but they also help feed the global population. The state’s agricultural industry generates over $100 billion in economic activity each year. In 2020, the state shipped more than $20 billion of food, feed, and fiber overseas, accounting for approximately 16% of total US agricultural exports. While almonds, pistachios, dairy products, and wine grapes are the top exports, several other high-value crops, like tangerines, and mandarins, are also on the rise.
California’s dominant status as a global agriculture leader is deeply rooted in several key factors, including its distinctive climate and natural resources, as well as its rich legacy of innovation. Let’s break down each of these factors.
California’s climate is uniquely well-suited to producing a variety of crops, making it a national leader in both the number and sheer diversity of crops grown. The state is one of only five regions located within a Mediterranean climate zone. Roughly speaking, these regions are located between 31 and 40 degrees latitude north and south of the equator and include Chile, South Africa, Australia, and the Mediterranean. This exclusive climate is marked by warm and dry summers with mild, wet winters, which exposes crops to sunlight for most of the year. This climate also allows many plant species to continue to grow or even bloom during the colder months.
Mediterranean climates, like California’s Central Valley, in particular, are especially ideal for growing some of the world’s highest value crops, including many tree nuts, stone fruit, and citrus, which need ample exposure to sunlight to thrive. In fact, out of the 9.6 million irrigated farmland acres in California, over 3 million are devoted to permanent crops. Today, permanent crops in California account for $14 billion in sales annually and over 28% of the total value of the state’s agricultural sector.
As is the case for all regions within a Mediterranean climate zone, California is no stranger to droughts. In fact, droughts are a recurring feature of California’s climate; the state has experienced off-and-on dry conditions spanning more than a decade for as long as records show. At the same time, 75% of the whole state’s precipitation falls north of Sacramento – even during flood years – while the majority of California’s most productive agricultural counties are in the southern half of the state, presenting an added challenge for farmers. To support California’s robust agriculture industry, nearly all of the state’s cropland, therefore, is irrigated.
Generally speaking, farmers in California receive their water supply through both surface water and groundwater sources. A handful of large-scale canals and aqueducts exist throughout the state, controlled by both federal and state governments, which allow farmers to access surface water virtually on demand. To sustain the state’s groundwater supply for decades to come, the California government recently enacted a groundwater management law, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, in 2014.
In addition to its water infrastructure, California is also a leading adopter of on-farm water conservation strategies. These strategies, including drip irrigation, automated irrigation scheduling, and the use of water-saving soil management techniques, have already made cropland roughly 33% more water-efficient over the last 20 years. Through this combination of infrastructure projects, water-saving technological innovation, and water legislation, California farmers are poised to remain resilient.
California is a well-known global leader in technological innovation, and this legacy extends to its agriculture industry. California is home to the largest number of agricultural technology companies in the country, placing California growers at the front of the sector’s innovation. These technologies can be applied throughout every step of the farming process, including land prep, irrigation, harvesting, storage, and more.
In addition to housing the greatest number of agtech companies, California also receives the greatest amount of funding compared to any other state. According to the 2022 AgriFoodTech Investment Report from AgFunder, a record total of $51.7 billion of VC funding flowed into companies in food and farming in 2021, with California alone representing 19% of this total.
Research and development within the state extends beyond the private sector; the CDFA supports many programs designed to improve water management, operational efficiency, and overall production through incentives and competitive grants. Additionally, California has several major agricultural research and extension programs at universities across the state, including UC Davis, California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, and Fresno State. Together, California’s robust research and development programs and public-private partnerships are helping the state cement its place as a leader in agricultural innovation.
A Breakdown of California Agriculture
This unique set of factors has enabled California to support an impressive range of crop types, each bringing immense value to the sector. Here’s a quick look at some of the top commodities grown in the state.
As global consumer demand for nutrient-rich proteins soars, tree nuts are surging in production. Already a nearly $39 billion industry, tree nut production worldwide is up 15% from 2021 and up 65% from a decade ago. California’s Central Valley, in particular, serves as the global center for tree nut production, dominating the industry both nationally and abroad.
California is the world’s leading pistachio producer, accounting for nearly half of the world’s supply and 99% of US production. With pistachio consumption in the US more than tripling over the last decade, pistachio acreage in California has grown at a greater than 10% CAGR over the last 10 years, reaching 485,000 dedicated acres in 2020. Today, they are the second-highest exported commodity from the state. Like pistachios, walnut orchards are also concentrated in California’s Central Valley. The state produces 99% of US walnuts and 75% of the global supply, with nearly ⅓ of the crop exported annually. Today, California’s walnut industry boasts a $1.8 billion market value.
While botanically classified as stone fruit, almonds are also included in most industry references to California tree nuts. Like walnuts and pistachios, American almond consumption per capita has jumped as consumer interest in healthy diets increases; in the last decade, per capita almond consumption increased by more than 50%. Meanwhile, California almond acreage has increased at a 6% CAGR – nearly doubling in the last decade to 1.6 million acres – in response to rising global demand. Today, the state produces over 80% of the world’s almonds and 100% of the United States’ supply and is valued at more than $5.6 billion.
Valued at nearly $44 billion, California is the fourth-largest producer of wine in the world – ranked only behind Italy, France, and Spain. With an estimated 615,000 acres planted to wine grapes, California accounts for 94% of all wine grapes grown in the US. In 2021, California growers crushed 3.6 million tons of wine grapes, a 6% increase from 2020. The impact of California’s wine industry spreads well beyond the state borders; California wine exports have increased by 60% in the last decade.
Furthermore, California growers have led the industry in sustainable winemaking. Over 50% of California vineyard acres are certified in a sustainability program, while more than 80% of California wine is made in wineries that have obtained certified sustainability qualifications. These qualifications include LODI RULES for Sustainable Winegrowing, Napa Green Vineyard Certification, Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing, and Sustainability In Practice (SIP) Certified. FarmTogether’s first wine grape deal, Vista Luna Organic Vineyard, is certified through LODI RULES.
Soft citrus fruits, such as oranges, mandarins (tangerines), and grapefruits, have skyrocketed as a popular snack choice due to their convenience and portability. Within the US, the third-largest citrus-producing nation, California accounts for nearly 60% of total production.
California is home to prime growing regions, particularly the San Joaquin Valley's "Citrus Belt", which boasts uniquely suited soils and a climate conducive to producing these high-quality crops. During the 2020-21 season alone, California produced approximately 4 million tons of citrus.
In 2020, California produced nearly half of the nation's mandarins and more than 90% of its lemons, the highest figures of any state. California is also a leading producer of Valencia and Navel oranges, as well as grapefruits. Today, citrus production in California creates over $7 billion in value for the state annually.
Stone fruits, such as peaches and plums, also thrive in California, where producers grow hundreds of varieties annually for shipment to the rest of the United States and abroad. The state produces over 80% of all stone fruit produced in the US, including 70% of the country’s peaches, 95% of its plums, and over 99% of its nectarines.
In addition to stone fruit, California grows a handful of other specialty fruit crops, including apples, berries, and avocados. The state produces 90% of the country’s strawberries, bringing in almost $2 billion annually. In fact, strawberries are the fourth most valuable crop in the state, grown on 35,000 acres along the central coast of California. Additionally, California accounts for 90-95% of the US production of avocados, producing seven different avocado varieties across 50,000 total acres.
California is the largest producer of vegetables in the country, accounting for more than 40% of the country’s vegetable acreage. The state has also consistently led the country in vegetable exports, accounting for 52% of the US total during the 2020-21 season. California farmers produce almost all of the US' artichokes, broccoli, cauliflower, garlic, celery, spinach, and carrots. Other vegetables grown include asparagus, bell peppers, sweet potatoes, squash, cucumbers, and snap peas.
California’s unique climate also lends itself to year-round lettuce production; more than 70% of the lettuce grown in the United States comes from California. Currently valued at $2.28 billion, California’s lettuce industry is also important on a global scale. The US is the second-largest exporter of lettuce in the world.
California tomatoes, valued at $1.2 billion, are grown on approximately 230,000 acres spanning the entire length of the state. While Florida farms dominate the production of fresh tomatoes, California produces the vast majority of the country’s processing tomatoes. California produces 95% of tomatoes for processing in the US and one-third of the global supply.
The Future of California
California farmers are well-positioned to remain a global power player in food production for generations to come. California’s exclusive mix of climate, soils, and history of innovation and investment have successfully supported the state’s outstanding production for centuries – and there are no signs of slowing down.
For a more detailed look into California’s dominant status and unparalleled resilience in the world of agriculture, the challenges and unique opportunities facing the state today, and the state’s future as a driving force within our global food system, you can download our latest white paper, What Makes California Such an Agricultural Stronghold?, located within the “White Papers” section of our Learning Center. .
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