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San Joaquin Valley
The single richest farm region in the world
0718 Nut-Farmer1
Walnut farmer Wallace Barnhill looks out on the 76 acres of walnut trees he grows along Walnut Road off Highway 120 northeast of Oakdale. He also grows a smaller quantity of almonds. The cultivation is much the same. They both need spraying and irrigation, he said. But the walnut harvest comes earlier in the year. - photo by John Branch

Editor’s note: The Bountiful Valley is a three-part series that will focus on different aspects of the agricultural industry in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties.

The global reach of local farms underscores the fact the San Joaquin Valley is the single richest agricultural region in the world.

Nine of the 10 most productive agricultural counties are in California. Statewide, crop production is in excess of $35 billion a year. California produces more than 400 commodities including a dozen crops that are grown nowhere else in the United States including almonds, olives, raisins, and walnuts. California is the nation’s largest producer of dairy products with almost 22 percent of all milk and cream produced in the state

San Joaquin County is the land of milk, wine and nuts. Those four farm products accounted for almost half of the county’s record $2.238 billion agricultural production in 2011. The annual crop report released by San Joaquin County Agricultural Commissioner Scott Hudson indicated farm production soared last year for a 14 percent increase over the 2010 level of $1.96 billion

According to the 2010 crop report released by the Stanislaus County Agriculture Commission, the value of agricultural commodities produced increased by 11 percent to $2,572,434,000, which represented an increase of $259,765,000 from the 2009 gross production value of $2,312,669,000. (The 2011 crop report is not yet available.) Of the fruit and nut crops harvested, almond commodities topped the list, a trend that doesn’t seem to be stopping any time soon as farmers who historically farmed products such as silage, and oats or barley, have taken to planting almonds as well to buoy sinking profits.

Oakdale in particular has seen an explosion in almond planting, according to Tom Orvis with the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau.

“Oakdale is going, well, I know it sounds funny, but, nuts,” Orvis said of the rapid proliferation of almond orchards beginning to sprout within the 95361 zip code. “The walnut and almond orchards are going neck and neck. The weak dollar has made exports go crazy.”

A reliable water source from Oakdale Irrigation District has made the prospect of planting permanent, potentially lucrative crops, more attractive to farmers who are being buffeted and badgered by a host of new regulations that often dovetail already existing regulations and always come at a cost.

“The regulations are hammering the farmers and people are getting frustrated,” Orvis said. “There is the feeling that they are using regulations as a revenue source. Farmers are having to diversify in order to survive.”

And judging by the increase in almond crops, farmers are definitely doing just that.

In 2010, there were 144,690 acres of almond meat harvested in Stanislaus County, which was an increase from the previous year.

Steve Logan, Deputy Ag Commissioner with the Stanislaus County Agricultural Commission said, “We set records on exporting nut crops, especially walnuts and almonds. We had 182 million pounds of almonds, which is by far the most exported of commodities.”

Stanislaus County is one of the largest exporters of bean commodities; however, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the product is grown here, said Logan.

According to the export data, Stanislaus County used to export mainly beans, tomatoes, and melons, but that has changed.

“In 2011, we didn’t export any tomatoes or melons. Up until last year, tomatoes and melons had been pretty regular,” Logan said.

Rick Da Silva, an Escalon farmer whose family has been in the farming and dairy industry since 1977, is one of many who have diversified their crops to help sustain their operation.

The Da Silva family has 150 acres of alfalfa, 600 acres of corn and oats, as well as 80 acres of almonds.

The corn and oats are grown to feed the family’s dairy operation.

Like many farmers, Da Silva has experienced the regulatory squeeze and often worries about the future of his family’s operation.

“It’s not to the point where we can’t grow our crops but there are so many different fees and regulations that it’s definitely become a challenge,” Da Silva said. “It’s a big worry. Now that the state needs money, they’re looking to squeeze wherever they can. Every time they pass a new regulation, it costs money. How many more regulations are they going to put on us?”

Da Silva is a second generation farmer and dairyman and the entire family works the operation in order for it to be successful.

“We just keep trying to excel,” Da Silva said. “We keep costs down by doing all the work. Ninety percent of the repairs we do ourselves. You have to stay on top of the new technology and methods if you want to stay competitive.”

Da Silva also said gone are the days where the farmer can stay small and remain competitive or lucrative.

“You used to be able to make a living with 500 cows…not anymore,” Da Silva said. “You have to go big. You have to be efficient and you have to grow.”

Another Escalon farmer, Rita Sorrenti and her husband Bill, are in rice, the family business since 1936, but they’ve since added almonds to their operation as well.

Currently, they have 400 acres of rice and 65 acres of almonds.

For them, the regulatory challenges are similar but weather is also a concern.

“Rice likes hot weather,” Sorrenti explained. “Rice pollination needs the hot weather. If it doesn’t pollinate, there is no rice kernel.”

Sorrenti said all crops come with their own set of challenges but a lack of water and a windy day can wreak havoc on the rice crop.

“Wind can damage the protective wax layer on the leaves of the baby plants,” Sorrenti said.

Rice farmers face a different set of regulations as their commodity requires the fields to be saturated with water, which must then be held for a certain number of days to ensure the runoff doesn’t contaminate the water supply or adversely affect the environment or landscape around it.

“Because of the weed killer we have to hold the water for so many days so it doesn’t kill something else,” Sorrenti said. “The expense for rice is so high the profit margin just isn’t there any longer. Our country has done more to hurt the farmer than help the farmer.”

In addition, fertilizer prices skyrocketed and the price of rice dropped dramatically.

Although the Sorrenti farmers are considered the second largest rice farmer in San Joaquin County, most of the rice for the world is grown in Northern California.

But even faced with the challenges, Sorrenti admitted, farming is in their blood and they have no desire to stop.

“My husband loves what he does — he’s a farmer at heart,” Sorrenti said. “When you’re farming you feel closer to God. You’re doing God’s work and we’re doing good for mankind.”

Sorrenti said the reward for the hard work is the knowledge that they’re doing something good for the people as well as how farming the land brings family together.

“I enjoy the togetherness. We all have the same goal. We all want the farm to survive,” Sorrenti said.