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What Alternative Crops? - 1999

In the 1950's Ventura County was the world's largest producer of walnuts with nearly 50,000 acres.  Prior to walnut production it was a major producer of lima beans and sugar beets.  Today there are about 300 acres of walnuts left in the County, no beets, and for practical reasons as a crop rotation, there just happens to be a few limas left.  Just because of the climate in the coastal avocado belt, it's possible to grow virtually anything; the problem is making money with it.

Wheat was a popular crop at the turn of the 19th century in Ventura.  We don't grow it now because a $400 return per acre doesn't pay the taxes.  Likewise, when state and federal water became available in the Central Valley, Ventura got out of the walnut business because land and water were cheaper in the Valley. Besides, why grow walnuts when greater returns are possible with lemons and avocados and the potential for freeze in the Valley limits their planting there? 

So the corollary is don't grow what others can grow.  This dictum goes even further.  Don't grow anything that can be stored or processed.  We have seen the problems of Costa Rican macadamias overwhelming our California product, because they can grow it more cheaply and then take their time moving it up here cheaply by boat.  So the extension of the corollary is don't grow what others can grow with cheaper land/water/labor.

But what does one grow?  This is where an understanding of consumers and markets is important.  There is a grower in Santa Paula who has two acres of Bacon avocado.  I asked him why he grew them and he told me he made fifty cents a piece by going door to door at restaurants.  Another grower in Santa Paula goes to the Santa Monica farmers market with five varieties of avocado and finds that buyers want variety.  A grower in Covina grows wampee (Clausena lansium, a citrus relative).  It is a fruit that most of the people in my office were willing to try once.  But off the 40 or so trees that he has, he sells out at the Alhambra farmers market to an Asian clientele that is waiting for him to show up. 

As we know, most Bacons don't go for fifty cents a piece and that goes for most of the other varieties and at this point growing more than 40 wampee trees would probably collapse the market.  But this is niche marketing and it is done in this case by the honest sweat of the farmer's brow going out to the clientele. 

Not many growers want to direct sell their product, because of the time it takes.  There are some niches out there that are larger and take advantage of the fact that imported fruit often must be picked "green", so that it can be shipped the distance into the US.  Mangos are $8 a box at Costco at times.  These are coming from Brazil and Mexico and the fruit will often looked shriveled on the shelf because they were picked immature.  The Spaniards have learned to capitalize on this by selling their more expensively grown mangos ripe off the tree into the Paris market.  They are able to command higher prices over the fruit that has had to be shipped so far.  This could be a possibility here, as well. Other fruits that would fit this bill are guavas and Mexican papayas.  Most consumers will still go for the cheaper fruit, but there is a market for high quality tasting fruit.

Another way to look at markets, is how we can take advantage of our climate to take advantage of more traditional crops.  Blueberries are an example of a fruit that is dominated by Oregon, Washington, New Jersey and North Carolina.  The average return for growers in those states over the last 10 years has been under a dollar a pound.  They are all competing with each other.  In coastal California it is possible to grow the Southern Highbush varieties that don't have the high chilling requirement of traditional varieties.  They also can produce much earlier and later than the traditional blueberry states and as a result command prices in excess of those states.

A slight twist on the taking advantage of timing theory and combining it with a less traditional crop is litchi and longan.   These fruit are shipped here from Mexico, Israel and Taiwan amongst other places.  There is a traditional Asian consumer that knows the fruit and there is also a larger audience that knows the fruit, as well.  The varieties grown here appear to ripen later than the other producing countries, or earlier than Australia which is also a producer.  Litchi would follow a more traditional wholesale market route, since there is a large enough consumer base out there for dealers to know where to sell the fruit.

California agriculture has always changed.  From Spanish and Mexican times to the present, it has change in response to transportation, weather, economics and consumer demand.  Knowing what the market wants is the underlying theme and growing what it wants is the key to staying profitable.