Agriculture, crops show economic gains in San Mateo County 

There has been much talk about the tech sector as part of the economic recovery in San Mateo County, but a less flashy industry had a significant recovery in 2012: agriculture.

There was an increase of about $3 million in total gross value reflecting a production boost across nearly all commodity categories. Of the increase, beekeepers, chicken egg producers, grape growers and vegetable farmers enjoyed the largest gains, a 2012 crop report noted.

The gains marked the end of several years of decline and the success of a new generation of farmers, according to Board of Supervisors President Don Horsley.

Of special interest in the report is the often less conspicuous cattle ranching sector, Horsley said. Although the gains were modest — about 6.6 percent — Horsley said ranchers such as Markegard Family Grass-Fed will shepherd the county's farmers through an uncertain economic future.

"We're just starting to realize the potential of profitable grass-fed beef in the county," said Doniga Markegard of the Markegard ranch. "More ranchers are switching over to grass-fed — newer ranchers," she said.

One reason for ranchers' success in 2012 was the increase in per-pound cattle prices, Markegard said.

Unlike many farmers in the state — the majority of whom are over 50 — the Markegards are relatively young, still in their 30s. That's why Horsley believes such farmers will ultimately steward the county's arable land through the 21st century.

That shift to a younger generation contrasts with the flower and nursery crop sector — one of the very oldest and largest in the county, which accounts for about $110 million of a total of $140 million in gross production value. In recent years the industry has struggled because of increased foreign competition and a feeble national economy — with the May 2011 bankruptcy of former coastside powerhouse Nursery Exchange seen by many as a bellwether of shifting economic fortunes.

But, the flower and nursery crop sector posted modest 2012 gains in crop value — a welcome reprieve from years of hardship.

Despite the challenges, agriculture remains a viable industry in a county sandwiched by dense urban developments. There is a community commitment to ensure agriculture's survival, Horsley said.

Exploding real estate markets in counties north and south of San Mateo County, have driven up real estate prices making it increasingly enticing for an aging population of farmers to sell their land. That's why government and nonprofits are vital to the region's continued agricultural vibrancy, Horsley said, noting that Santa Clara County used to be one of the most productive agricultural regions in the area — although no longer.

Nonprofit organizations such as the Peninsula Open Space Trust work "hand in glove" with government to ensure agricultural lands are protected now and for future generations like the Markegards, he said.

"They don't make a fortune, but it's often enough to get by," Horsley said.

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