San Mateo County’s agricultural economy is shrinking at an alarming rate. Between 2019 and 2020, local agricultural production dropped by nearly 30 percent, a change that leaders say is mostly attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic and the CZU August Lightning Complex Fire that forced month-long evacuations for South Coast farms.
The downward trend isn’t new, however. The last 80 years of crop reports show that agricultural industries have been declining since the 1990s. Agriculture production hit its local peak in 1997, when the gross value of agricultural production was more than $218 million.
By 2019, that number had decreased to $130 million. In just one year, all the growth accumulated in the 1970s and ’80s was lost. In 2020, the gross value of agricultural production dropped to just over $93 million. The 30 percent local loss is dramatic as compared to the statewide average of 3.3 percent decline in the same year.
Agricultural Commissioner Koren Widdel said at a recent county Board of Supervisors meeting that sustained drought, a declining labor force and the transfer of agricultural land out of family farmers’ hands are all contributing factors to the sustained losses to local agriculture.
Last year, the most hard-hit local agricultural concerns were floral and nursery crops, posting a $32 million decrease in production between 2019 and 2020. Widdel said that’s in part due to the closure of Bay City Flower, a leading wholesale plant producer, which shuttered in 2019.
Vegetable production declined by 16.6 percent, accounting for $4.4 million of lost revenue, and was most affected by the CZU fire. Brussels sprouts and fava beans sustained the largest losses, with artichokes, snap peas and leeks seeing marginal gains. Widdel said while the pandemic shut down local retailers and restaurants and disrupted the entire industry, local farmers and ranchers — particularly those that pivot to direct-to-consumer sales — were able to adjust their planting plans to accommodate the closures and easing demand. Those affected by the CZU fire, however, had no recourse, leading to an estimated $1.1 million in agricultural losses, according to the crop report.
“Unfortunately, the CZU fire came at harvest season for many row crops, and this didn't allow them to get their products to the market,” Widdel said.
The fire also had a devastating effect on forest products like timber, which saw an 80 percent decline between 2019 and 2020. According to the 2020 crop report, an estimated $203 million worth of timber was lost in the fire.
Widdel said the full effects of the pandemic have yet to play out, but she expects an eventual stabilization of the agricultural industry after the pandemic. Even with the massive losses to nurseries, indoor potted plants still make up the biggest share of the county’s agricultural production at $36 million in total value.
That’s in part because many local farmers have switched to hemp and cannabis production. Hemp, which tends to use more space and produce less value, is included in local agricultural calculations. Cannabis, whose production is illegal in the eyes of federal authorities, is not.
“The total greenhouse square space is unchanging in the county, but what changes is how the space is used,” Widdel said.
Some local agricultural industries did see gains last year. Field crops like beans saw slight increases while fruits and nuts remained stable, with wine grapes here largely unaffected by smoke damage in 2020. Honey production saw an increase, as did livestock, due to direct-to-consumer sales during the pandemic. But Widdel said slaughterhouse shortages still plague ranchers in the county.
Also last year, the county’s agricultural department worked with state and local agencies to distribute masks both for the ongoing pandemic and for wildfire smoke protection. The department also helped bring in supplies, information, rent relief, and testing and vaccine clinics directly to workers on farms. The 2020 crop report attributes much of the pandemic and CZU support to local nonprofits Puente de la Costa Sur, Coastside Hope and Ayudando Latinos a Soñar.
“Momentous relationships were forged between local government service workers, community agencies and the agricultural community in 2020, reminding us of how much difference each person can make and when our abilities are sown together, we can endure the challenges,” the report reads.