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SLO County grapes have best year, cows worst, ag report says 

Despite five years of drought, local grape growers probably won’t be whining when they hear that the volume and value of their crop continues to rise in SLO County. Cattle ranchers, on the other hand, had little to celebrate.

Wine grapes topped the list of the county’s most valuable commodities in 2016, according to an annual report from the SLO County Department of Agriculture. The report also stated that the county’s cattle sales shrank to historic lows in the same year, largely due to the ongoing impact of California’s long-term drought.

According to the report, county growers produced more than 156,000 tons of grapes last year. That crop was worth about $242.9 million, or more than a quarter of the total $914.7 million in total crop value for the year. 

click to enlarge AG LAG:  The state’s severe drought pushed the sale of cattle to historic lows in SLO County, while wine grape production continued to boom. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • AG LAG: The state’s severe drought pushed the sale of cattle to historic lows in SLO County, while wine grape production continued to boom.

“If there was a perfect year for wine grapes, 2016 was it,” said SLO County Agricultural Commissioner Martin Settevendemie.

Settevendemie said the good grape harvest was, in part, due to more cooperative weather. The grapes had minimal exposure to frost and were harvested before the rainy season.

Grapes weren’t the only fruit crop that had a successful 2016. Those rains created a mixed bag for overall agricultural production in the county, according to Settevendemie.

“[It] was kind of a highly variable year,” he said. “We did have some rain, which was good, but it was very sporadic, and it effected growers differently.”

If grape growers boomed in 2016, then ranchers headed in the opposite direction. According to the report, the total number of cattle dropped from 55,000 head in 2015 to 42,000 in 2016, with the total value dropping 39 percent from $66 million to $39.9 million for those same years. The number of SLO County cattle sold in 2016 decreased by 24 percent from the previous year, the lowest since 1928.

Settevendemie said that the drought played a large role in the declining cattle production in the county.

“The cattle industry and animal industry are still feel the effects of the drought,” he said. “The production on rangeland was lower due to the drought, so they couldn’t graze the same number of cattle on the same land.”

The report also attributed the drop in cattle production to the drought, as well as the limited availability of rangeland and increased consumer demand for chicken and pork, all of which forced SLO County cattle farmers to reduce their herds in 2016.

SLO County 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold said the drought had been especially tough on the cattle ranchers, commenting in a May 9 meeting that the industry would take years to recover from its impact. In addition to contributing to the county’s economy, Arnold said that the area’s cattle also played a role in preventing wildfires, as their grazing helps reduce the amount of grass that can dry and fuel such blazes.

“Without grazing animals in our rangeland, it becomes pretty dangerous when it comes to fire season,” Arnold said.  

Despite the woes of the local ranching industry, the report noted that SLO County’s agriculture improved overall from 2015 to 2016, with total crop value growing by 10 percent. 

“The agricultural industry in San Luis Obispo County continues to be a major contributor to the county’s prosperous economy,” the report stated.

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