California: the state that feeds America.

World Ag Expo, held annually in Tulare, California, is the world’s largest annual outdoor agricultural event. With Californian the undisputed leader in U.S. agriculture, Perkins was there to showcase its range of agriculturally focused power solutions. So too was Powernews ag correspondent Adrian Bell. Here, in the first of a two-part series, he dives into the history of Californian agriculture and where it stands today.


 

 

Gold gave the Golden State both its moniker and its agricultural legacy. The famous Californian Gold Rush of 1848 brought 300,000 people, drawn from other states and around the world by the heady promise of instant riches, to an undeveloped frontier that was still not yet part of the United States.

It was the greatest migration in U.S. history, yet wave after wave of its participants arrived in a territory that produced little of its own food. The growing gap between food supply and the hungry demands of hard-working prospectors was initially plugged by imports. Apples and wheat came south from Oregon, pork and beef west from Nevada and Texas, and Hawaii sent vegetables across the Pacific.

What few farmers California possessed before the Gold Rush dwindled still further as they too headed for the hills, hoping to try their luck at making their fortune. Shortages remained, reflected in historic accounts of food prices. ‘Exotic’ produce such as oranges – for which miners were willing to pay a premium, to combat scurvy – sold for one dollar a piece, the equivalent of nearly $40 today. It didn’t take long before many of the would-be fortune-seekers, rather than return home penniless, realised they could instead turn to farming and produce food for the still-growing population.

But the real shift to California’s farming prominence came with an 1884 court decision. It ended a bitter struggle between miners and farmers: who had more ‘right’ to use the landscape? Judges ruled in the farmers’ favour: food production came first. That ruling, recognising the significance of agriculture and the importance of avoiding pollution, is often seen as the spark that fired California’s ongoing regard for the environment.

Today, so large is the Californian agricultural economy, it ranks as the world’s fifth largest supplier of food. In 2024, the average Californian farmer feeds 155 people, up from just 19 people per farmer in 1940. Not surprisingly that makes it the powerhouse of U.S. agriculture, growing more than 400 commodity crops and generating 11 percent of U.S. agricultural value.

It supplies one-third of U.S. vegetables and three-quarters of its fruit and nuts. California is the country’s biggest milk producer, producing nearly 20 percent of the nation’s milk. And of all crops grown in the U.S., 19 of them – including almonds, pistachios, walnuts, raisins, olives, plums and table grapes – are grown only in California.

Take Selma, for example, a small Californian town just 30 minutes from the World Ag Expo showground. With 90 percent of all U.S. raisins produced within eight miles of Selma, it’s been known as the Raisin Capital of the World for more than 60 years. More than 3,000 growers, between them cultivating over 200,000 acres of raisins, produce around 350,000 tons every year. Two-thirds of the annual production stays in the U.S., while the remainder finds its way to nearly 50 countries: Japan and the United Kingdom are the top two export destinations.

Then there’s almonds, the state’s leading agricultural export by value. Never mind 100 percent of U.S. supply, California grows 80 percent of the world supply. No other fruit or nut enjoys as much geographic concentration as almonds in California. Nor have many crops displayed the same agronomic process: in 1915, the average almond yield was 210 lbs/acre. Today, with the knowledge of cross-pollination, irrigation and more effective mechanical harvesting, any one of California’s 7,600 almond growers can expect yields of between 2,000 – 4,000 lbs/acre. Remarkably, one of the original Californian varieties from early plantings in the 19th century – the NonPareil – remains the most dominant almond, reported by the Almond Board of California to account for 40 percent of production.

Fascinatingly, almonds also provide U.S. beekeepers with as much as 80 percent of their business, for almonds – more than any other crop – absolutely rely on insect pollination. It takes two hives of bees to pollinate every acre of orchard: ‘do the math’, as Californians would say, with the 1.3 million acres planted with almonds.

This year, the almond orchards were just coming into bloom at the time of the World Ag Expo in February, with beekeepers laying out their hives ready for the bloom. For the bees don’t stay in California: in what’s been described as the largest managed pollination event anywhere in the world, once the almond blossom fades the hives are sent on a pollination circuit that takes in the apples of Washington state, Floridian tangerines and North Carolina’s blueberries.

But keeping the U.S.A.’s most productive farms in operation requires water: lots of it. Agricultural irrigation consumes 41 percent of California’s managed water supply. Without irrigation, California’s agricultural output would shrink like a deflated balloon. In the Central Valley, just 1 percent of the country’s farmland produces 8 percent of U.S. food supply. But this region has 17 percent of the nation’s, and 75 percent of California’s, irrigated land. Central Valley agriculture alone accounts for 20 percent of the entire US groundwater demand.

Water remains a contentious issue for many Californians, exacerbated by recent extensive droughts. The most recent, from 2020-2022, saw the massive 30,000-acre Shasta Lake – which acts as the reservoir for the Central Valley – fall to just 25 percent of its capacity. In turn, 400,000 acres of farmland was left unfarmed in 2021, rising to 600,000 acres in 2022.

Farmers have not dragged their feet in recognising the need to use water more sparingly. Almond growers improved water-use efficiency by 33 percent in two decades. The water used to produce one glass of milk uses 65 percent less water than in the 1950s. And efficient new forms of irrigation – drip, micro or sub-surface – cover nearly 50 percent of California’s irrigated farmland, up from less than 20 percent just 30 years ago. Yet despite these improvements, and the value the state gains from agricultural water use continuing to rise, there is concern that a warming climate will reverse some of those efficiency gains by increasing water demand again. Now the state is enacting new legislation to substantially reduce groundwater extraction; the challenge will be to cut water use without affecting the state’s role as an agricultural powerhouse, particularly if the estimated 500,000 – 900,000 acres of irrigated farmland are taken out of production.

Water’s not the only environmental challenge. California’s famed for its long history of progressive environmental legislation, including clean air laws. It was the first state to set emissions standards for cars, and remains the only state allowed to set stricter vehicle emissions standards than the federal government’s.

The California Air Resources Board says emissions from the state’s 140,000 pieces of off-road agricultural equipment account for approximately 8 percent of California’s NOx emissions and 5 percent of particulates. In the San Joaquin Valley, where the agricultural industry is so concentrated, those figures rise to 22 percent and 17 percent respectively.

But in the last seven years, more than 12,000 tractors and other off-road equipment have been replaced with new, lower emission models through a voluntary cost-share programme. In the second part of our California agriculture series, we’ll take a closer look at emissions standards, the impact on Californian agriculture, and how Perkins and its distributor network provides OEMs operating and selling into the state with practical support and technological solutions.

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