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'Salad Bowl' designation still earned by Monterey County

Monterey County — and the Salinas Valley in particular — has long been called the nation's "Salad Bowl" by those both in and out of the area. The latest crop statistics prove that it still has earned that designation.

The 2012 Monterey County Crop Report reflects a production value of $4.14 billion for Monterey County, which is an increase of 7 percent over the previous year. Leaf and head lettuce production represent about 30 percent of that crop value as those two items rank first and third respectively, and together accounted for about $1.27 billion in production value. Sandwiched in between those two salad bowl giants are strawberries, which is only a few ticks below leaf lettuce at almost $785 million. Leaf lettuce had a crop value of a bit more than $794 million. Strawberries had a production value gain of 10 percent in 2012, which inched that crop ever closer to the top figure, though it is a slot strawberries have enjoyed before. In fact, in 2009 strawberries became the top-valued crop in Monterey County for the first time ever. They matched that feat the following year but the last two years strawberries have been back in second place.

For more than a half-dozen years, leaf lettuce, head lettuce and strawberries have been the top three in one order another. Leaf lettuce surpassed head lettuce once the statisticians stopped putting romaine in its own category and added it to the leaf lettuce category.

"Crop values vary from year to year based on production, market and weather conditions," said Ag Commissioner Eric Lauritzen in his letter accompanying the annual crop report, explaining the shifting in placement for the various crops.

For 2012 he highlighted several "noteworthy changes" aside from strawberries and the lettuces, including a tremendous increase in wine grape value of 52 percent and a big jump in spinach value that pushed it into the top 10 for the first time since the spinach crisis of 2006.

In 2005, the Monterey County spinach crop was valued at $188 million, which was almost a 20 percent gain from the previous year. Spinach was on the rise in production numbers and value. In September of 2006, the spinach E. coli crisis occurred and spinach sales halted, causing the value of the total crop that year to decline more than one-third to $111 million. Since then the annual value has hovered around the $130 million figure.

In 2011, heavy spring rain and bad markets later in the year created a precipitous drop in value to about $88 million. In 2012, the value of the crop rebounded to about $130 million and spinach cracked the top 10 Monterey County crops once again. It must be realized that the acreage devoted to spinach is less than it was a decade ago. In 2012, 11,300 acres were planted in spinach compared to more than 16,000 in 2002.

Also in the top 10 in terms of value were broccoli, nursery, wine grapes, cauliflower and a miscellaneous vegetable category. Each of those items was also valued at more than $100 million. In addition, Monterey County has another 15 crops that top the $10 million figure. In that category are several notable fresh crops such as mushrooms, artichokes, raspberries, cabbage, green onions, carrots, rappini, radicchio, kale and asparagus.

Examining acreage numbers over the past two decade gives one another view of the trends in the Salinas Valley area. In 1992, there were almost 70,000 acres of head lettuce produced in the area. In 2002, that number had shrunk about 12 percent to 61,000. By 2012, head lettuce acreage was at less than 45,000 acres. On the other end of the spectrum were leaf lettuce items, which shot up from 28,000 acres in 1992 to 58,000 acres in 2002 and more than 80,000 acres in 2012.

Wine grapes also showed big increases climbing from 32,000 acres in 1992 to 37,000 acres in 2002 and 45,000 acres in 2012. On a lesser scale, strawberry acreage grew more than 80 percent from a little less than 7,000 in 2002 to more than 11,500 acres in 2012. What is remarkable about that number is the value of the strawberry crop is virtually the same as leaf lettuce value though seven times more acreage is devoted to the leaf lettuces.

But as Commissioner Lauritzen pointed out, "It is always important to note that the figures provided here are gross values and do not represent or reflect net profit or loss experienced by individual growers, or by the industry as a whole. Growers do not have control over most input costs, such as fuel, fertilizers and packaging, nor can they significantly affect market prices."