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County Farms Remain Big Business

Jeff Rowe is a free-lance writer

They tend to get lost in the shadows of the high-rise buildings that often border their fields, but Orange County--once one of the state’s most productive agricultural areas--still has its farmers.

And in 1985, they produced $260 million worth of food and nursery products--down 3% in value from the previous year but, because of favorable weather and a strong economy, still the second best year on record, according to William Fitchen, Orange County’s agricultural commissioner.

With a total market value of $129.2 million, nursery stock and cut flower production--as usual--accounted for almost half the total figure. But strawberries, oranges and a dozen other food crops produced in the county each had total values in excess of $1 million.

According to figures compiled by the county Department of Agriculture, the market value of strawberries produced in the county was $62.6 million, compared to $66.1 million for the prior year, while the total value of Valencia oranges was $23.6 million, compared to $21.9 million in 1984.

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Tomatoes, avocados, green beans, celery, corn, asparagus, cabbage, lemons, mushrooms, lettuce, squash and cucumbers each also brought in more than $1 million, the report said.

Those figures show that “we still have a considerable agricultural industry in Orange County,” said Jim Harnett, chief deputy agricultural commissioner.

In addition, the value of beef cattle produced in the county totaled $1.8 million. However, at the rate sales for the county’s livestock industry are declining, there may not be many more million-dollar years left for the cattle business.

Gross value of the county’s livestock industry, which includes chickens, fell to $2.9 million in 1985, contrasted with $19.9 million in 1975, $28.9 million in 1965 and $42.5 million in 1955.

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In addition to beef cattle, Orange County once had significant dairy operations and a large number of chicken farms and hog ranches. But with urban encroachment, “those kinds of things don’t mesh too well with people,” Harnett said.

Total land in agriculture in 1985 was 32,789 acres, up from 30,708 acres in 1984 but only half the total of two decades ago, according to county figures. The acreage counts exclude most grazing lands. In recent years, total farm acreage has varied by only a few thousand acres from year to year, driven by a number of factors including commodity prices and the strength of the economy.

Some of the 1985 increase came in barley production, Harnett said, which increased to 5,550 acres, up from 1,940 acres in 1984.

Although the amount of land devoted to farming in Orange County has been diminishing for decades, crop values have risen, principally because farmers tend to plant higher value crops as the available land declines. In 1965 for example, when 64,247 acres in the county were in agriculture, the gross value of the crops produced on those lands totaled $89.4 million. Last year, on about half that much land, the gross crop value was almost three times higher.

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