HANFORD - In drought year 2016, Kings County agriculture managed to nearly hold its value compared to 2015, losing only $18.9 million, or less than 1 percent in value.
That's one major takeaway from the 2016 Kings County crop report released Tuesday.
Kings County's total agricultural output was just over $2 billion.
Kings County Supervisor Joe Neves was surprised. He thought the ongoing severe drought would result in a bigger hit.
The drought ended in 2017, but the 2017 crop report won't be released until 2018.
"It could have been considerably worse [in 2016]," Neves said. "I think we were very fortunate."
Neves and other county officials expect the wet winter of 2016-2017 to cause a rebound in crop values in 2017, though it's tough to say how big of a rebound it will be.
In 2016, drought had the biggest impact on field crops like vegetables and tomatoes, which declined in acreage.
The value in field crops continued to slide in 2016, dropping 10.2 percent for vegetable crops and 5.1 percent for other field crops.
But the value of the biggest kid on the agricultural block, Kings County dairy industry, was less tied to drought than it was to a supply-vs.-demand imbalance.
After seeing a 32.8 percent decline in value in 2015, Kings County's milk value continued to fall, dropping 2.3 percent from $651.7 million to $636.9 million.
Compare that to the industry's nearly $1 billion value in 2014.
The dairy industry's struggles have been well-publicized in recent years.
Knowledgeable observers like Deputy Kings County Agricultural Commissioner Steve Schweizer are unsure if milk value will ever rebound to the 2014 level.
"I don't know if any dairyman can see that [happening]," Schweizer said.
Neves said the number of dairies in Kings County has continued to contract.
However, Neves pointed out that some dairy products, such as the mozzarella cheese produced by Leprino Foods in Lemoore, continue to hold high value (think about the popularity of pizza).
That's reflected in the continued domination of milk as the number-one product compared to other agricultural commodities in Kings County.
At a $636.9 million value, Kings County milk was worth more than the next three commodities – cotton, cattle/calves and pistachios - combined.
But milk value stagnated in 2016, whereas some crops continued to jump in value.
Fruit and nut crops - pistachios, almonds, peaches, etc. - continued their rise relative to other kinds of crops.
Fruits and nuts continued to inch up in value closer and closer to milk.
The combined value of all fruit and nut crops in Kings was $525.1 million, up 2.3 percent from the $513.3 million value reported in 2015.
Fruit and nut crops, i.e. "permanent" tree crops that take years to water and develop, have long since become more important in Kings than field crops such as cotton.
In 2016, the value of all field crops in Kings – think cotton, tomatoes, wheat, stuff that can be harvested, plowed under and re-planted year to year – was $367.6 million, which was only 70 percent of the value of tree crops.
Tree crops such as almonds and pistachios are simply more valuable per unit of water than field crops like wheat and processed tomatoes.
"Farmers are leaning toward higher-value commodities," Schweizer said. "With the [uncertain] water situation, growers are looking to maximize their profits and go with higher-value crops."
Schweizer was referring not only to the fact that farmers can't count on a consistent water supply each year in California's highly variable climate.
He also had in mind the state's new groundwater sustainability law, which requires growers to set aside some stream runoff for groundwater recharge purposes.
Schweizer expects acreage and value for tree crops to continue to increase over the next five years.
However, because of water uncertainty and commodity price fluctuations, diversification has become the order of the day in all aspects of Kings County and San Joaquin Valley agriculture.
For large farmers, that means planting some tree crops but leaving plenty of acreage available for field crops that can be easily switched out (or left fallow) year-to-year.
Among smaller growers specializing in, say, almonds or pistachios, many are getting involved in non-agricultural investments such as real estate.
"You see more and more agricultural people investing in homes," Neves said. "They can keep some cash flow going and yet still make a profit."
Many dairy operators have also confronted the need for diversification, with some getting into other types of farming to go along with dairying.
However, according to Neves, the skills required to run a dairy are substantially different from the skills needed to grow crops.
"It's a very difficult transition going into growing crops versus growing calves," he said.