El Nino produced rotten apple season
The paperwork is finally in, and it confirms what El Dorado County farmers and ranchers have known all along … 1998 was a terrible year for fruit and nut crop revenues.
How bad was it? Apples, the county’s signature crop, were down by more than 25 percent from 1997 – bringing in $4.22 million last year, compared to $6.04 million the year before. Pears, cherries and peaches were also hit hard. Overall, the county’s gross agricultural value equaled $46.3 million in 1998, a decrease of $3.8 million (7.7 percent).
Blame El Nino. Storms last year did much to wash away profits and throw a wet blanket over agriculture throughout the state, and El Dorado County – an emerging national player in fruit and livestock production – was hit hard. The wet spring caused diseases which reduced yields and quality. Cherry production was hit by rains in June, when they usually ripen – causing splitting and decay.
But how does all of this affect the overall county economy? Just how important is agriculture to the health and well being of El Dorado County?
“It’s quite important, but the crop report does not represent the entire story,” said El Dorado County Agricultural Commissioner Bill Snodgrass. “You might say that county agriculture is somewhat insulated from down years such as we had in ’98.”
It is estimated that the total impact of agriculture on the county’s economy is $280 million per year. So a decrease of $3.8 million, while fairly significant, is not disastrous. One reason is that El Dorado County now has a wholesale packing plant, which serves as a means to reap added profit during bumper-crop years.
“The Placerville Growers put in a packing line three years ago, and that has helped significantly,” Snodgrass said. “If we have a bumper crop of apples, for instance, we can now pack them and sell them wholesale, which adds to the profit.
“This protects the growers from down years. Previous to 1996, we could only do this with peaches. Apple Hill growers could make some money selling some crates of apples from their farms, but nothing like they can make with a packing line.”
Another buffer against bad years is represented in bakery items, which many of the growers sell from their own farms. If bad weather turns out some bad quality apples, for instance, most of them can still be used in apple pies, fritters, etc.
And that leads to the county’s biggest cash cow: tourism.
“Even if the county has a bad year due to the weather, the tourists don’t know that,” Snodgrass said. “We are still going to get our 500,000 people visiting Apple Hill in the summer and fall. The only thing that affects that is bad weather on the weekends.”
Still, El Nino still shook many farmers in the region, some of whom lost as much as 70 percent of their fruit.
“It was a disastrous year,” said Carl Visman, owner of Boa Vista Orchards in Placerville, the county’s largest apple producer. “Only about 20 percent of our apple crop turned out to be good fruit. It was a real bummer.”
Boa Vista, a popular stop on the bucolic Apple Hill Tour, has been in existence since 1918. It is one of the largest farms in the county, and also produces cherries, peaches, plums and chestnuts.
But Visman reports that his cherry crop was reduced by 20 percent last year, and that there isn’t a grower in the region who has not been slapped in the pocketbook by the unpredictable weather.
“The problem is that we had a very wet spring, and it even rained into the summer,” said Ed Delfino, who operates the Kids, Inc. farm in Camino.
“My crop was down only about 15 percent, but my costs were a lot higher,” Delfino said. “My costs for spraying went up triple. We’ve had other bad years due to frost, when entire crops were wiped out. But when you’re talking about rain, (1998) was the worst year in my memory, and I’ve been here since 1960.”
The one bright spot for county agriculture was in wine grapes. Although overall revenue was down slightly, the Department of Agriculture reported that acreage increased 14 percent – the biggest such rise since the turn of the century. Timber also showed a slight increase, with a value of $27.6 million.
The weather snapped a five-year winning streak in the county wine industry, which had reported substantial gains each year since 1993. County grape growers produced 3,638 tons in 1997, with $3.7 million return to growers ($3.1 million in 1998). Overall, the wine industry accounted for more than $50 million to the county economy in 1997.
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