It’s an immense, incredibly fertile valley in the heart of California. The sprawling Central Valley extends 450 miles from Mount Shasta in the north to the Tehachapi Mountains in the south. This vast area includes Butte, Colusa, Glenn, Shasta, Tehama, El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento, Sutter, Yolo, Yuba, Fresno, Kings, Kern, Madera, Merced, San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Tulare counties.
"If the Central Valley were its own state, it would be the number-one agriculture producing state in the country," claims Richard Cummings with the Great Valley Center, a private, nonprofit organization based in Modesto that works to improve California’s Central Valley. "Agriculture is the economic base of the region and a diverse sector involving more than people planting and working the fields. It also includes advertising, manufacturing and all the related industries." According to the Great Valley Center, this area generates 57 percent of the state’s agricultural output.
Employment Growth off the Farm
Agriculture provides jobs not only through farming operations, but also in related industries such as food processing, transportation, equipment sales and other business support operations.
"Twenty percent of Central Valley jobs are in agriculture and 12 percent are in those related industries – from banks and restaurants to the service and hospitality sector," Cummings relates. "And as long is there is a demand for those commodities grown in California, the outlook for the future is positive indeed."
Central Valley farm wages vary by subregions, with the highest in the north and the lowest in the southern San Joaquin Valley.
5.73 million acres of farmland in the valley creates challenges with water, urbanization and how these will impact the future of agriculture. "Increasingly, agriculture is changing and has become more sophisticated and, as a result, the industry requires people with technical backgrounds and college degrees," says Cummings. "There are many job opportunities that [require] people with those skills. The future of agriculture is still unfolding."
Kern County is the top dairy-producing county in the state, attests assistant agricultural commissioner Louie Cervantes, and the dairy herds keep getting larger.
"Small farms have been swallowed by large corporate farms here," he points out. "A 1000-acre farm is typical. Therefore, professional employment is linked to that sort of environment. For example, we have lost small and medium farms to (housing) developments in the areas surrounding Bakersfield."
High farmland prices are another side effect of housing developments that are turning into bedrooms for the greater Los Angeles area. Kern County, like much of the Central Valley, is filled with corridors of commuters.
Jobs on Tap
Demand is high for people working in animal husbandry and veterinary science and in advisory capacities such as managing the farm or working independently with pest control monitoring for crops.
Another hot employment area is the pest control advisory business. "The introduction of exotic pests – Japanese beetles, fruit flies, glassy-winged sharpshooters and others – is our number-one worry, and the state has mandated that all counties do pest detection," Cervantes reports. "This includes pest monitoring because lots of produce is exported to foreign countries and these lethal hitchhikers could threaten the global community."
International sales is fertile territory, as California goods find their way to every corner of the globe.
Water management is a key issue in the Valley and employment within the essential irrigation science is in demand. Cervantes notes he used to see more row crops such as tomatoes, but growers have moved to permanent crops like citrus because it’s easier to manage water consumption. Water has become a high-priced commodity.
"Row crops require flood irrigation whereas tree crops bear fruit year after year and no crop rotation is needed," he explains. "This is just one example of a shift. Right now agriculture in the county is healthy, although it is undergoing changes."
Assistant agricultural commissioner of Fresno County Bob Vandergon agrees. "The county’s agriculture industry is in a very strong position because of the commodities and the value they have on the market. Given the current economic situation it will continue to be positive for upcoming years. I think job growth is in the support industries."
The number of jobs directly tied to farming is slightly on the decline because of mechanization. Conversely, all the support industries that provide services are very strong.
Growth, according to Vandergon, is all going to be in the mechanical aspects – manufacturing of equipment, in research and development of safer chemicals and in the area of sales and marketing. In addition, financial institutions will continue to be strong.
"Anyone looking to get into this rich field should consider getting an advanced education beyond high school," he advises. "Agriculture is not just getting your hands dirty anymore; it’s getting more technical. An associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree can make you more marketable in the industry."
Fresno County’s number-one crop varies from year to year. "Most years it is cotton, but a combination of wine and table grapes is moving up fast. Last year, the number-two crop was almonds."
Over 1.2 million acres of irrigated farmland make it the number-one agricultural county in the nation. Vandergon attributes this to Fresno County’s soil, climate and availability of water. That unique combination of natural resources is a major factor in the Central Valley’s agricultural productivity. Because the climate is mild most of the year, the growing seasons are longer – another reason farmers here produce more crops than in other states.
"That phenomenon is good for everyone," declares Vandergon. "I would be hard pressed to think of an industry, other than agriculture, that provides so much for so many."