California Drought: Crop Sectors

Fruit, tree nuts, and vegetables play a dominant role in California agriculture, and California producers account for a large share of U.S. production of many products in these categories. Nearly two-thirds of California’s agricultural crop value comes from fruit and tree nut production ($20.3 billion average for 2012-14) and about a quarter from commercial vegetables ($7.1 billion, excluding potatoes) (fig. 1). These commodities represent around 70 percent of total U.S. fruit and tree nut farm value and 55 percent of vegetable farm value.

Among field crops, California accounts for 10 percent of the value of U.S.-produced cotton and about 30 percent of the value of annual U.S. rice production. Acreage planted to both these crops has declined since the onset of the drought.

This page contains the following sections:

Figure 1

Fruit, Tree Nuts, Vegetables: Drought-Affected Crop Areas

Integral to California’s fruit, tree nuts, and vegetable sectors are the San Joaquin Valley and Central Coast district, where drought conditions are at exceptional levels. These two production areas generate more than three-fourths of California’s fruit and tree nuts on a farm-value basis and almost 70 percent of vegetable farm value based on the California County Agricultural Commissioners’ Reports (March 2015).

  • The San Joaquin Valley district includes San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced, Madera, Fresno, Kings, Tulare, and Kern Counties.
  • The Central Coast district includes Alameda, Contra Costa, Lake, Marin, Monterey, Napa, San Benito, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, and Sonoma Counties.
  • Most of these areas are irrigated—99 percent of orchard and berry acreage in the San Joaquin Valley and 94 percent in the Central Coast district. For vegetables, acreage in both these districts is virtually all irrigated.
  • The San Joaquin Valley is the largest fruit and nut producing district in the State, accounting for 65 percent of total fruit and nut crop value in 2013. Grapes, almonds, pistachios, walnuts, oranges, peaches, tangerines, and sweet cherries are the primary fruit and nut crops produced in the valley.
  • The San Joaquin Valley also produces one-third of California’s vegetables, which in 2013 amounted to a district total of $2.56 billion in gross farm value (based on County Agricultural Commissioners’ Reports, March 2015). It is the second-largest vegetable-producing district in California, next to the Central Coast Valley, which generated $3.60 billion in gross farm value in the same year.  
  • Ninety-two percent of harvested vegetable acreage in the Central Coast district is for the fresh market, according to USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture, while acreage in the San Joaquin Valley is more equally divided between the fresh and processing markets (48 percent and 52 percent, respectively).

California: A Major Producer of Fruits, Tree Nuts, and Vegetables

  • The 2012 Census of Agriculture reports that 22 percent of all U.S. farms growing fruit (including berries), tree nuts, and vegetables are in California, accounting for 43 percent of the total acreage for the sector.
  • Most of this acreage is under irrigation—specifically, 98 percent of the State’s land in orchards, 100 percent of the land in berries, and 100 percent of the land planted to vegetables.
  • California ranks No. 1 in U.S. fruit production, growing an overwhelming majority of the Nation’s grapes, strawberries, peaches, nectarines, avocados, raspberries, kiwifruit, olives, dates, and figs (table 1).
  • California’s tree nut production is the Nation’s largest, supplying virtually all U.S. almonds, walnuts, and pistachios.
  • California ranks second to Florida in citrus production but is the major supplier of citrus fruit for the fresh market. A vast majority of citrus acreage in the State is devoted to oranges. California also produces over 90 percent of U.S. lemons and more than 50 percent of U.S. tangerines.
  • Vegetable production (including melons) occurs throughout the United States, with the largest acreage in California, accounting for 47 percent of the harvested area in 2014. During this period, California’s share of total U.S. production for fresh-market and processed vegetables accounted for 60 percent and 73 percent, respectively. Top commodities produced in the State in 2014 in terms of volume were broccoli, carrots, celery, lettuce, and tomatoes (table 2).
  • California is also the Nation’s largest producer of melons, accounting for about one-third of annual U.S. volume. More than half of California-grown melons are cantaloupes, of which the State is the largest U.S. producer, along with honeydew melons. Watermelons are the most predominantly grown melon in the United States, and California is the third-largest producer, after Florida and Georgia.

Fruit and Tree Nuts: U.S. and California Production Updates

For a number of fruit and tree nut crops, U.S. production volumes for 2014 were down from 2011-13 average levels, largely driven by reduced California production (table 1). Water availability remains a major concern among California growers, but increased reliance on groundwater for irrigation and more efficiently managed water allocations have mitigated some of the ongoing drought effects on production. Other weather events (e.g. early winter freeze, warm winter, and spring frost in parts of the western United States; spring frosts and extremely cold winter in the eastern half of the country) have also contributed to lower production of certain fruit and tree nuts, driving down U.S. volumes in 2014.

  • Despite ongoing drought and water shortages, California continued to be the leading State for fruit and tree nuts (including melons) in 2014, accounting for 51 percent of production and 71 percent of farm value.
  • Production volumes for a number of California’s fruit and tree nut crops in 2014 (e.g., lemons, tangerines and mandarins, nectarines, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, honeydew melons, pistachios, and walnuts) still exceeded the previous 3-year average volumes, despite continued drought conditions.
  • California's citrus production is forecast to be up 4 percent for the 2015/16 marketing season, with increased navel orange volume compared to a year ago. State output volumes for grapes, pears, sweet cherries, olives, strawberries, and walnuts are likewise expected to improve in 2015 from the previous year.
  • Bearing acreage for California almonds continued to increase in 2015, but reduced kernel weight and size, partially due to the drought, is resulting in the lowest yields since 2009. Yields are forecast to average 2,020 pounds per acre in 2015, down from 2,150 in 2014 but still above the 2009 low of 1,880. Nuts per tree across all growing districts and all varieties have declined slightly each season since 2011. Similar to almonds, nut sets per tree for the State’s walnuts are also down in 2015 from the previous year, causing yields to decline. However, increased bearing acres and higher tree density per acre are pushing walnut production to a record in 2015.
Table 1. Fruit and tree nuts: U.S. and California production volume, selected crops (1,000 tons)
Commodity U.S. volume: Avg. 2011-13 U.S. volume: 2014 U.S. volume: Change (%) CA volume: Avg. 2011-13 CA volume: 2014 CA volume: Change (%) CA share: 2014 (%)
Lemons* 894 824 -7.8 804 820 2.0 100
Oranges 8718 6768 -22.4 2160 1960 -9.3 29
Tangerines and mandarins* 661 732 10.7 513 728 41.8 99
Grapefruit 1207 1047 -13.3 165 152 -7.7 15
Tangelos 50 40 -19.5 -- -- -- 0
Apples 4811 5716 18.8 137 120 -12.2 2
Apricots* 63 65 3.3 57 55 -2.7 86
Avocados* 223 198 -11.5 190 164 -13.8 86
Blueberries 286 340 19.2 22 29 27.5 8
Dates* 32 29 -8.3 32 29 -8.3 100
Figs* 36 32 -11.0 36 32 -11.0 100
Grapes* 7857 7772 -1.1 7079 6822 -3.6 88
Kiwifruit* 32 28 -11.5 32 28 -11.5 100
Nectarines* 192 205 6.9 182 193 6.0 94
Olives* 132 94 -29.0 132 94 -29.0 100
Peaches* 981 853 -13.1 711 620 -12.8 73
Pears 898 832 -7.4 227 189 -16.6 23
Plums & prunes* 515 440 -14.6 502 425 -15.3 97
Raspberries* 90 116 28.3 52 75 43.4 65
Strawberries¹* 1500 1511 0.7 1351 1379 2.1 91
Sweet cherries 364 364 0.1 81 33 -58.9 9
Cantaloupe* 893 746 -16.5 578 468 -19.0 63
Honeydew* 175 187 6.6 127 142 11.5 76
Watermelon 1806 1598 -11.6 310 254 -18.0 16
Tree nuts
Almonds, in shell¹* 1697 1546 -8.9 1697 1546 -8.9 100
Pistachios, in shell¹* 244 257 5.3 244 257 5.3 100
Walnuts, in shell¹* 483 570 17.9 483 570 17.9 100

-- = Not available.
* = California ranks No. 1 in U.S. production.
¹Utilized production.
²Production for fresh market.
Source: USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service, Citrus Fruits 2015 Summary (September 2015), Citrus Fruits 2008-2012 Final Estimates (August 2014),  Noncitrus Fruit and Nuts 2014 Summary (July 2015), Noncitrus Fruit and Nuts 2007-2012 Final Estimates (October 2014), Vegetables 2014 Summary (January 2015), Vegetables 2008-2012 Final Estimates (August 2014).

Vegetables: U.S. and California Production Updates

Impacts of the extended drought on production have been mitigated by the irrigation that supplies virtually 100 percent of California vegetable acres. Despite ongoing drought and water shortages in California, where about 40 percent of U.S. vegetables and pulses are grown, total U.S. output volume rose 5 percent from 2013 as harvested area expanded.

  • While State production of some vegetables decreased in 2014 compared to the previous 3-year average (e.g., cauliflower for the processing market, artichokes, snap beans, head lettuce, Romaine lettuce) production of other vegetables increased (e.g., broccoli and tomatoes for the processing market, bell peppers, chili peppers, spinach, leaf lettuce).
  • Despite ongoing drought and water shortages, California continued to be the leading State for fresh-market vegetables in 2014, accounting for 52 percent of production and 60 percent of farm value.
  • Reports out of California indicate fewer plantings for short-season crops such as lettuce, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley where groundwater is less available and water allocations have been curtailed. Land may be diverted to other vegetable crops or left fallow. Acres planted to head lettuce in Fresno County fell 27 percent between 2012 and 2013 while acres planted to leaf lettuce increased 4.5 percent (California Agricultural Commissioners’ Report). The San Joaquin Valley typically serves as a “shoulder region” for lettuce as production moves between the Central Coast and Southern California. Based on data from the 2012 Census of Agriculture, less than 5 percent of the California lettuce crop was grown in San Joaquin Valley, with two-thirds produced in the Central Coast and 30 percent in Southern California. State-wide, 2014 area harvested for head and Romaine lettuce decreased 9 and 2 percent, respectively, compared to the 2011-13 average, while area harvested for leaf lettuce increased almost 5 percent (USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service - NASS).
  • Total U.S. production of tomatoes used for canned products—such as sauces, paste, soup, juice, and ketchup—rose 16 percent to 29.3 billion pounds in 2014 as area, yields, and prices increased. Water shortages in California, where 95-97 percent of processing tomatoes are grown, did not inhibit production which has continued to expand. According to the NASS January 15 California Processing Tomato report, U.S. processors anticipate contracting a record 15.0 million short tons in 2015. If realized, this amount would be the largest tomato crop on record—surpassing the 2014 amount by 11 percent.
  • A small number of California horticultural operations reported discontinued irrigation between 2012 and 2013 due to a shortage of surface water (24 operations) or a shortage of ground water (16 operations) (USDA/NASS Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey, 2013). If water supplies continue to tighten, the rising cost of irrigation could pressure California producers to find new sources of water, invest in additional water conserving technologies, or simply bid up the cost of remaining water supplies.
Table 2. Vegetables: U.S. and California production volume, selected crops (million lb)
Commodity U.S. volume: Avg. 2011-13 U.S. volume: 2014 U.S. volume: Change (%) CA volume: Avg. 2011-13 CA volume: 2014 CA volume: Change (%) CA share: 2014 (%)
Artichokes* 101 95 -5.6 101 95 -5.6 100
Asparagus* 78 74 -4.9 37 34 -8.7 46
—Fresh 63 57 -9.8 37 34 -8.7 60
Snap beans, fresh 439 368 -16.2 59 46 -21.9 13
Broccoli* 1,999 2,093 4.7 1,904 2,013 5.7 96
—Fresh market 1,950 2,024 3.8 1,854 1,944 4.8 96
—Processing market 50 69 39.4 50 69 39.4 100
Cabbage 2,055 2,236 8.8 517 689 33.1 31
Carrots* 2,325 2,538 9.2 1,927 2,096 8.8 83
Cauliflower* 667 705 5.8 586 627 7.1 89
—Fresh market 650 698 7.3 569 620 8.8 89
—Processing market 16 8 -53.9 16 8 -53.9 100
Celery* 1,904 1,839 -3.4 1,802 1,741 -3.4 95
Cucumbers, fresh 766 690 -10.0 76 68 -10.0 10
Garlic* 413 387 -6.3 404 380 -6.1 98
Head lettuce, fresh* 4,860 4,444 -8.6 3,636 3,219 -11.5 72
Leaf lettuce, fresh* 1,247 1,298 4.1 1,072 1,104 3.0 85
Romaine lettuce, fresh* 2,767 2,468 -10.8 2,104 1,778 -15.5 72
Onions, dry, summer* 6,306 6,489 2.9 1,623 1,986 22.4 31
Bell peppers* 1,547 1,535 -0.8 861 924 7.3 60
Chili peppers* 415 463 11.4 251 319 27.2 69
Potatoes 44,322 44,669 0.8 1,503 1,569 4.4 4
Pumpkins 1,132 1,314 16.1 183 192 5.0 15
Squash 685 575 -16.2 119 104 -12.8 18
Spinach, fresh* 566 592 4.5 359 416 15.9 70
Sweet corn, fresh 2,760 2,535 -8.2 608 542 -10.8 21
Sweet potatoes 2,608 2,958 13.4 628 523 -16.8 18
Tomatoes, open field 28,309 32,003 11 25,610 29,038 13.4 91
—Fresh market 2,839 2,728 -3.9 1,156 1,018 -12.0 37
—Processing market* 25,471 29,275 14.9 24,454 28,020 14.6 96

* = California ranks No. 1 in U.S. production.
Source: USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service, Vegetables 2014 Summary (January 2015), Vegetables 2008-2012 Final Estimates (August 2014).

Import Share of Fruit, Tree Nut, and Vegetable Domestic Use

Although regarded as a major global producer of fruit, tree nuts, and vegetables, overall the United States is a net importer of these products. U.S. imports continue to grow rapidly in response to increased demand, partly owing to a growing ethnic population; increased awareness of the importance of fruit, tree nuts, and vegetables in a healthy diet; and increased demand for new products. Imports have been critical in increasing year-round domestic supplies by providing off-season products (e.g., grapes and stone fruit from Chile and asparagus from Peru in the winter) and tropical fruit (bananas, papayas, pineapple, mangoes, and limes) for which there is limited to no domestic production. Imports also help fill supply gaps resulting from occasional adverse weather or, in the case of some fruit and tree nuts, their alternate-bearing nature.    

  • U.S. fruit imports continue to rise, especially in the fresh, canned, and juice markets. In recent years, U.S. markets for fresh and canned fruit, as well as fruit juice, are the most dependent on imports to satisfy domestic demand (table 3). Bananas make up about half of total U.S. import volume for fresh fruit and are sourced from Guatemala, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Honduras. Excluding bananas, U.S. fresh fruit imports account for about one-third of domestic fresh fruit use. Mexico and Chile are the leading suppliers of fresh fruit (excluding bananas) imported in the United States.
  • Other fruit and fruit product suppliers to the United States include Brazil (the largest supplier of orange juice), as well as China, Argentina, and Chile (the leading suppliers of apple juice). Western Europe is a major supplier of U.S.-processed fruit product imports, such as wine and fruit juices. Southeast Asia—specifically, Thailand and the Philippines for canned pineapple—provides the largest share of canned fruit products.
  • U.S. demand for almonds, walnuts, and pistachios is met mostly by domestic production. U.S. tree nut imports supplement the domestic market with products that are not domestically produced: cashew nuts and Brazil nuts.
  • While a majority of melons consumed in the United States are sourced from domestic production, U.S. melon imports have risen to record-high levels in recent years. Presently, watermelon imports hold a 51-percent share of total U.S. melon import volume, and cantaloupe imports account for a one-third share. Mexico is the primary supplier of watermelon imports to the United States, while Guatemala provides more than half of cantaloupe imports. Imports fill demand gaps in the market mostly in the winter and early spring and account for at least one-third of the available melon supplies for domestic consumption (table 4).  
  • U.S. vegetable imports continue to rise for fresh, canned, and frozen markets, with frozen vegetables (excluding potatoes) having a slightly higher reliance on imports than fresh vegetables to meet domestic demand (table 5).  
  • U.S. imports of vegetables (including mushrooms and potatoes) reached a total value of $11 billion in 2014, up 2.1 percent from 2013. The increase was mainly led by frozen vegetables (up 6 percent) which accounted for 9 percent of the 2014 vegetable import value followed by canned vegetables (3 percent). With the added trade advantages of NAFTA and close proximity to the United States, Mexico remained the top foreign source with 49 percent of import value, followed by Canada (21 percent). China, Peru, and the remaining countries accounted for 30 percent of import value in 2014.
Table 3. Import share of domestic use for selected fruit and tree nuts, 3-year average and 2014/15
Commodities 2011/12–2013/14 average (%) 2014/15 (%)
Apricots 6 3
Avocados 74 82
Cherries 8 8
Grapes 50 49
Kiwifruit 79 82
Lemons 9 9
Tangerines and mandarins 24 26
Oranges 8 11
Peaches and nectarines 8 5
Plums 31 16
Strawberries 13 14
All, fresh fruit 50 50
Apricot 96 91
Dates 52 71
Figs 56 70
Peaches 85 86
Prunes 4 17
Raisins 8 9
All, dried fruit 20 22
Apricots 7 7
Sweet cherries 100 100
Olives 65 78
Peaches 16 24
Plums 33 47
All, canned fruit 36 38
Grape 51 35
Prune 51 77
Lemon 71 79
Orange 29 43
All, juiced fruit 49 57
Tree nuts
Almonds 5 6
Pistachios 1 1
Walnuts 6 13

Source: USDA, Economic Research Service, Fruit and Tree Nuts Yearbook (October 2015).
Table 4. Import share of domestic use for melons, 3-year average and 2014/15
Commodities 2011/12–2013/14 average 2014/15 (%)
Cantaloupe 37 40
Honeydew 38 37
Watermelon 26 34
All, melons 33 38
Source: USDA, Economic Research Service, Fruit and Tree Nuts Yearbook (October 2015).
Table 5. Import share of domestic use for selected vegetables, 3-year average and 2014
Commodities 2011–13 average (%) 2014 (%)
Fresh market
Artichokes 79 80
Asparagus 90 92
Beans, snap 24 30
Broccoli 16 18
Cabbage 7 8
Corn, sweet 4 4
Carrots 15 15
Cauliflower 10 11
Celery 6 6
Garlic 54 53
Lettuce, head 5 7
Lettuce, leaf and romaine 4 4
Onions 15 19
Peppers, bell 55 58
Spinach 3 4
Tomatoes 52 52
Total (excluding potatoes, mushrooms, and sweet potatoes) 26 28
Asparagus, freezing 81 86
Broccoli, processing 94 93
Cauliflower, processing 86 90
Onions, dehydration 25 17
Peppers, chili (all uses) 83 81
Spinach, freezing 46 48
Tomatoes, processing 6 6
Total, canning (excluding potatoes and mushrooms) 15 14
Total, freezing (excluding potatoes) 35 38

Source: USDA, Economic Research Service, Vegetables and Pulses Yearbook (March 2015).

Cotton: California Acreage, Production, and Value

Cotton production in California depends on irrigation. The recent drought that began in 2012 remains a major concern for agricultural producers as reservoir levels and water supplies have been reduced significantly; record-low water allocations were seen in 2014. Also, competition from urban areas has grown with population.

California Cotton: Highlights

  • Fourth-largest cotton producing State over 2012-14. Accounted for 6 percent of U.S. cotton production during 2012-14.
  • Ranked 10th out of 17 States in area planted to cotton in 2015.
  • State yields are nearly double the U.S. average.
  • Produces both upland and extra-long staple (ELS) cotton.
  • Produces high-quality cotton with the majority going into the export market.

Cotton Production

  • California cotton production has declined for 4 consecutive years to an estimated 516,000 (480-lb) bales in 2015, about one-third the production of the mid-2000s and the lowest since the mid-1940s.
  • California ranks 7th by State in cotton output, producing both upland and ELS cotton.
  • ELS, or American Pima, cotton is grown in the western part of the United States and accounts for only 4 percent of the total U.S. cotton crop. California is the dominant producer of the longer and finer quality ELS fiber that is used in high-value products such as sewing thread and more expensive apparel and home furnishing items. During the past 3 years, California production accounted for 94 percent of total ELS cotton production in the United States.

Cotton Acreage

  • California currently ranks 10th out of 17 States in area planted to cotton. California’s cotton acreage is entirely irrigated, which has contributed to a high-yielding crop.
  • During 2012-14, California cotton area averaged approximately 290,000 acres, or about 3 percent of total U.S. cotton acreage. This is considerably lower than a decade ago, as irrigation supplies are lower and higher value crops have pulled acreage away from cotton production.
  • While acreage planted to upland and ELS varies from year to year, the lingering drought in California limited acreage once again in 2015. USDA’s Crop Production report released in October indicated a 24-percent decrease in the State’s total cotton area for 2015, with ELS area declining 26 percent and upland area decreasing 18 percent. While this would be California’s lowest total cotton area since 1932, the decline is similar to the one experienced during the previous statewide drought of 2007-09.

Cotton Value

  • As a producer of high-quality cotton fiber, California accounts for a greater share of U.S. cotton value than its share of production.
  • With the decline in area, California’s production value has declined considerably in recent years. During the mid-1990s, the value of California’s cotton crop was approximately $1 billion. But based on the latest USDA Crop Values report, California’s 2014 cotton production value is estimated at approximately $500 million, or about 10 percent of the value of all cotton produced in the United States.
  • Cotton accounted for roughly 14 percent of the State’s field crop value during 2012-14. Given the State’s extensive crop diversity, cotton represents only 2 percent of the total value of principal crops grown.

Rice: California Acreage, Production, and Value

The historic California drought, now in its 4th year, has had a major impact on the California and U.S. rice industry. Because of the drought, low reservoir levels, and water restrictions, rice acreage in California in 2014 declined more than 23 percent from a year earlier to 434,000 acres, the smallest since 1992. All of the California rice crop is irrigated. Rice plantings in 2015 declined an additional 5 percent to 416,000 acres, yielding a crop of just 32.9 million cwt, 11 percent less than a year earlier and the smallest California rice crop since 1998.

  • California is the second-largest rice growing State, with most of the crop grown in the Sacramento Valley in Northern California.
  • From 2004 until 2013, California’s share of the total U.S. rice crop averaged 22 percent.
  • In 2014, California’s rice production declined 22 percent from the previous season to 37 million hundredweight (cwt), the smallest crop since 1999.
  • California grows primarily medium- and short-grain rice and accounted for 79 percent of U.S. production of these two classes of rice from 2004/05 to 2013/14.
  • Field yields in California are10-15 percent higher than average yields in the South, a result of both the varieties grown and the climate. This yield difference has declined over the past 20 years as southern yields have increased while California yields have shown no significant long-term increase.
  • Rice accounts for slightly more than 3 percent of the total value of principal crops grown in California, and  1-2 percent of the total value of principal crops grown in the United States.
  • Price increases for California rice due to smaller crops have been limited by a 120-percent increase in medium-grain area in the South since 2013/14. Southern medium-grain rice currently trades at more than 35  percent below the price of California medium-grain rice. The difference is largely due to the higher quality of California rice.
  • Like the South, California typically exports about half its crop each year, with northeast Asia accounting for more than half of annual shipments from California.
  • California typically supplies the bulk of U.S. medium- and short-grain rice for export. However, in 2014/15, southern rice exports increased, due mostly to its lower price.

Figure 3

ERS Crop Specialists

Agnes Perez (Fruit and Tree Nuts), Hodan Farah Wells (Vegetables and Pulses), Leslie Meyer (Cotton), and Nathan Childs (Rice)