We are ringing in a new year and a new decade. Moving from one decade to the next is significant…after all…trends, statistics, and history are often categorized and track by decades. In recognition of the recent 100th anniversary the Sonoma County Farm Bureau celebrated, I thought it would be fun to look back in time (and to our archives) to a century ago. What were the hot topics, crops and economic milestones worth writing about in 1920?
As is often said, history repeats itself, and that holds true when comparing Sonoma County agriculture today to that of the Roaring 20’s decade. (Can you imagine our crab feed during that era of bootleggers, flappers and marathon dance competitions)? Our County ‘s current agriculture industry is a major player in the US economy. To provide perspective, if our county was a state, we would be the 11th largest state in crop value on the nation’s scoreboard. Some may think we earned this status with the resurgence in the last half-century of our premium wine grape industry, but not so. We have dominated the charts for at least a hundred years – records show that in 1920 Sonoma County was the eighth ranking county in the nation in farm production.
What crops elevated us to this a century ago? Sonoma County was first nationally in wine grapes, first in eggs and poultry, second in prunes, canning cherries and hops, and was a national leader in the production of apples, milk and livestock. In the 2018 Crop report issued by Tony Linegar, County Ag Commissioner, wine grapes still are our highest valued crop, followed in order by milk, livestock and poultry, livestock and poultry products, cattle and calves and nursery products. Prunes, cherries and hops don’t even make the top 15 list, but apples are still hanging in there ranking 12th in our County’s record books.
As is today, our farming forefathers were just as “cutting edge” and innovative as our trendsetting county agriculturalists are today. A lead story from the early 1920s reported on one of our Petaluma egg processors, Wilsey & Bennett Company. During those pre-WWII years, Wilsey & Bennett Company packed hundreds of cases of local eggs and loaded them on a steamer headed for London. This equated to approximately 90,000 eggs that were specially packed in custom made boxes to stay the trip. (Quite an amazing feat since I have a hard time making it the five miles home from the grocery store with an uncracked egg out of a dozen pack.) According to the story ran in the Petaluma Daily Courier, printed on each case in “attractive” letters was the statement “Packed in packing house of Wilsey Bennett Co., Petaluma, California.” And who thought branding was a thing of the late 20th century?
What has changed drastically over the last century is the number of farms in Sonoma County. In 1920, the Statistical Report of the California State Board of Agriculture reported there were 5,739 farms in Sonoma County. According to the USDA 2017 census, that number dropped to 3,594. Those reports showed the number of farmed acres decreasing from 748,147 to 567,771 for the same periods. Not statistics we want to hear but statistics we should be mindful of – we need to work to ensure that this phenomenon does not become a trend. A worthy project to work on during this decade.
These little tidbits of information support what we all know about our local farmers. They are resilient, nimble and are continually adapting to the challenges thrown their way. Whether it be drought, forest fire, overregulation, imported pests or NIMBYS, our agriculturalists persevere and find ways to do it differently, to do it better and to do it more sustainably.
In 2120, your Farm Bureau ED may not be using a computer keyboard to type his or her monthly editorial, but I am confident that the Sonoma County agriculture industry, driven by the passion of its farmers, will still be top of its game and leading the world in innovation, product quality and land stewardship. It is who we are in Sonoma County.