25 Feb 2011

Imperial Valley's harvest of propaganda

Addendum: Seems like there's a problem with reports that give data on shipping/processing location compared to area where the food is grown. See the comments for more -- esp. my point on why data will not matter if water is allocated in markets, instead of a political process.
DH was also interested in my question of a few weeks ago: Does IID produce 80% of US winter veggies?.*

He sent the following email:
I googled ag production for the US just to get a ballpark number — $171 Billion in annual production. So 80% would have to be a pretty big number — even if it was only fresh winter veggies…

Next I went to Imperial County’s Crop and Livestock Report [pdf] (as mentioned in ‘CRG’s’ comment), which states that IID produces a total of $1.45 billion in crops.

So IID produces about $1.5 Billion a year, similar to Westlands. Already I’m getting suspicious- that’s a pretty small percent of the $171 billion US total to produce 80 % of anything!

Next I decided to check out USDA’s website. I wanted to compare apples with apples (so to speak) – in this case IID production against total US production [pdf] of “vegetable and melon crops” for 2008. So we get:

Value: $675 mil $10,414 mil 6.4%
Acres: 117,000 1,733,000 6.7%

So IID has no more than 7% of the total production value and about 7% of the total acreage. There's NO WAY that they produce 80% of the winter veggies (three months!) unless I am missing something. Also, IID uses about the same acreage to produce a given amount of production as the US on the whole -- they don’t appear to be inordinately productive as some of the comments inferred.
DH makes some good points, but I wanted to double-check, so I went to the USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Shipments report for 2009 [PDF], and I looked at every crop listed for "California -- Imperial Valley." Without exception, for every crop in every month and every year, Imperial Valley is not the single largest producer (making 80% impossible), but often quite a small producer.**

Imperial Valley's largest crop, by value, is lettuce. So how about lettuce? Imperial produces 1,720 x 100,000 pound units of iceberg lettuce. That's a lot, but Arizona produces 7,790 units and the CA-Central Valley produces 17,425 units. What about January? In IID's biggest producing month, it's 489 units. Arizona? 1,606 units. Processed and Romaine lettuce are the same.

Not content with that, I went to the USDA's report on California Agricultural Statistics for 2009 [PDF] and discovered that Imperial is 10th in production among California counties. What about individual crops? According to country reports (p. 2), Imperial's big crops are "Strawberries, Nursery Stock, Lemons, Celery, and Raspberries," but pp 6-8 say that Imperial is California's number one producer of "carrots, corn, alfalfa hay, sugar beets, and wheat." And then there's page 10, which says Imperial's big five crops are "Lettuce, Cattle, Wheat, Alfalfa, and Broccoli." That's a lot of confusion, but broccoli is a fresh winter vegetable. Oh darn. Imperial Co. is the third largest producer.

Bottom Line: Imperial County does not produce 80% of America's winter veggies, and it doesn't look like IID produces a majority of any agricultural product. It may be the number one producer of alfalfa hay (tons per acre per year), but that's not a winter vegetable. IID and Imperial Valley are not a critical or strategic source of food. They are a source of a small share of total US agricultural production.

* Imperial Irrigation District and Imperial Valley are used interchangeably here. IID manages water and power in the IV area, delivering 97% of its water to IV farmers.

** I also emailed Dean and Carlos at IID. They referred me to the county ag agent (whose reports are integrated into California reports) and -- for some reason -- data from Arizona. So, nothing from them to support the 80% claim.


Mr. Kurtz said...

Annual figures ignore seasonality. In December and January, for instance, Imperial is a very important source of vegetables, because the weather in most other parts of the country is lousy then. In the middle of the summer, alfalfa hay production is greatly reduced, and many growers switch to alfalfa seed; Imperial is a major seed producing area. Arizona is running out of water, or at least water for agriculture. Improved refrigerated transport, and political stability, have allowed Chile, Peru, and Central America to compete effectively with Imperial in the vegetable markets. That has been great for the regional economies, and probably saves US consumers some money at the supermarket. However, from an environmental or worker safety (and possibly food safety) standpoint, production in those countries is far more problematic. Shutting down Imperial would shift even more production southward.

I have no doubt that IID folks exaggerate their importance, just as guitarists, lawyers and poets do. But the place is not unimportant.

The Pasadena Pundit said...

Duh, Kathy Baron, a spokesperson for the University of California at Riverside is the source of the statement that IID produces 80% of U.S. winter crops -- not the Imperial County Farm Bureau or local farmers. So blame UCR for any distortion of the data, not the farmers.

Anonymous said...

One time I looked up total gross national farm income and it was $375 billion, according to USDA. (can’t remember the year but within last 2-3 years). Westlands claims $1 billion gross annually. That means the water district claiming it feeds the nation is producing about one quarter of one percent of the nation’s food supply. Pretty hard to feed the nation on .25 percent of the food supply.

David Zetland said...

@MK -- The linked USDA report has production BY MONTH, and IID is nothing close to dominant in the US. Arizona is (so, yes, we can now discuss the importance of the CAP!)

@PP -- glad to hear that. IID folks didn't confirm or deny the 80% figure.

CRG said...

It’s hard to get an accurate comparison of one group of commodities during a few months based on year-round total production figures, but I understand where DH is coming from.

I’ve been pondering this since the original post last week, and when you posted the link to the fruit & vegetable shipments report, David, I started to do a little calculating. Using broccoli as a reference point, I added up the total shipments from Imperial Valley in 2009 from that report: 26.9 million pounds. According to the county’s crop report, Imperial Valley produced 8 million 26-pound cartons of broccoli in 2009, a total of more than 210 million pounds.

So where did the rest go?

A large portion of Imperial Valley’s produce is processed in Yuma, Arizona, just across the state line. So if the USDA report is based on the point of shipment, a lot of Imperial’s production would be credited to Arizona, since that is where the shipments would originate.

So back to the figures, I totalled up Imperial Valley’s and Arizona’s shipments on the USDA report. That gave me a total of 118 million pounds. We’re getting closer, but it’s still not the 210 million pounds that were grown in Imperial Valley (not to mention that at least some broccoli is grown in Arizona, so not all of those 118 million pounds originated in Imperial). My guess is that either some of the shipments from Imperial are not included in the USDA report, or since much of the produce is processed elsewhere, other regions listed on the table (Arizona, Southern California and possibly Central Valley as well) are getting the credit for those shipments, even though the produce is grown in Imperial.

Using the numbers that we have, if I spread out the 2009 Imperial Valley production of 210 million pounds proportionally across the months it is produced, and compare that with the total domestic production reported on the USDA shipping table, it appears that Imperial Valley produces as much as 97% of the domestic broccoli in January, 89% in February and 84% in December.

I’m not sure I would necessarily quote those figures as gospel, however, since the question still remains whether some of the shipments are missing from the USDA figures altogether. But it does give another view to the discussion.

JR said...

This is interesting. But come on David -- the discussion you've posted is very far from being a rigorous analysis. It's definitely not an analysis I'd feel comfortable about relying on in trying to write objectively about the issues. In addition, your tone ("...harvest of propaganda"..."Oh darn") conveys the impression you've got an ax to grind here. And your selective use of data to "prove" your point seems to reinforce that impression. (For example, why pick broccoli rather than carrots at the end of your last paragraph? On that particular chart, IV is ranked third for broccoli, but first for carrots.) None of this fills a reader with confidence that you're being objective.

Also, the dollar value of a crop (or of numerous crops combined) cannot, I think, properly be used as a proxy for its (their) importance to the food supply. For example, almonds are a high-value crop, and a producer growing a lot of them could easily have a high rank on a chart where rankings are based on the total dollar value of crops produced. And, based on that sort of ranking, a producer of lower-dollar-value crops that are more crucial as basic food items would have a lower rank. (Don't get me wrong -- I love almonds. But that's not the point.)

Another thing: I think you may be using this document USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Shipments report for 2009 incorrectly. For example, I noticed that for carrots the document doesn't refer to Imperial but only mentions CA Central Valley. However, I know that huge quantities of carrots are grown by Imperial Valley farmers for companies based in the Central Valley; the carrots are trucked directly from IV to the Central Valley, and then processed and shipped out of the Central Valley. So apparently the chart refers to the Central Valley as the producer even though the carrots are actually grown in Imperial Valley. The issue seems to be a function of how this report defines "shipments."

Oh, by the way, I've heard that California dairies (i.e., LOTS of milk, cheese, yogurt) get almost all of the alfalfa and other field crops used to feed their cows from Imperial Valley. If that's correct (again, I need solid confirmation of the details), then aren't those Imperial Valley field crops making an important contribution to the food supply?

So, bottom line: I still need help sorting out the details in my attempt to determine the extent to which IV is an important food producer, particularly in the winter. Sorry to say this, but the analysis provided in today's blog really doesn't help much at all.

Just trying to work through these issues carefully and objectively...

CC said...

I find these posts very useful but as one of the commenters put it, not at the level of rigor or comprehensiveness to serve as the basis for policy positions. We really need a credible analysis about CA ag -- what it produces, what its value is, is it still true that alfalfa is still using 9 MAF per yearn etc. -- Any advice or direction you have about reports and papers that have pulled the best data together in a credible way?

David Zetland said...

@CGC -- good analysis. As JR also points, there may be a difference between growing and shipment location.

@JR -- I have no axe to grind (carrots vs broccoli). As I mentioned, the report was confusing. Unfortunately, I am not an ag or extension economist. I, like you, just try to figure out what's going on. I think that you (and a few others) mistake these blog posts as peer-reviewed academic publications. They are not. They are better in some ways (we are talking) and worse in others (I only worked on this for 2-3 hrs, not 203 months). The important thing is that we are all getting a better understanding of what "80%" means. Oh, and my *tone* is directed at claims by IID farmers, the IV farm bureau and reporters that we're all screwed if IID doesn't get water. As MK mentioned above, there is more food being imported intot he region. Is foreign food dirty, dangerous or immoral? I don't think it's nearly as bad as domestic farmers argue. As far as water is concerned -- I am happy that IID has its rights; I'd prefer to see those rights marketed ($ to IID if sold), so that we can separate the political allocation of water from the free market growing of food. Then data won't matter.

@CC -- There's a problem in the data, in that lots of people don't want to make the data clear (e.g., groundwater)

I did the best I could (given this isn't my day job) on that post, and the point was to do a fact check. Others are adding more arguments and data, so consider that a first draft of a group-sourced report.

So please tell me what you find.

OTOH, I dont think that fighting with data is always helpful. I don't care who gets water where, I care that the process of allocation is open (to all) and transparent. Then "data" do not matter.

Mr. Kurtz said...

JR, Imperial Valley is an important alfalfa producer (both domestic and for export), and a very important alfalfa seed producer, but since California grows about 900,000 acres of alfalfa, no one region supplies an overwhelming share. In fact, California is a net importer of alfalfa, mostly from Nevada. You are certainly correct in pointing out that without alfalfa production in California, our dairy industry wold dwindle to insignificance. Our state's dairy markets conceivably could be filled by producers in Idaho, Arizona, Texas, and Mexico. Of the bunch, Idaho is the only place with halfway decent environmental and animal welfare regulation; about equivalent to California's in 1980. While I believe that the California dairy industry should be smaller, and more focused on higher value products, the millions living here will continue to consume a lot of dairy products one way or another.

CRG said...

By the way, in regard to that confusing Ag Statistics report from 2009, I have looked at that report, and if memory serves, I believe that in the county summaries (the section where the report stated Imperial's main crops are things like strawberries and raspberries, which aren't even grown in the county in ANY quantities), it appeared that Imperial's crops were swapped with the county's directly below it on the list. If you switch those two, the report will make a lot more sense.

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