Mike Antle, center, executive vice president of Salinas-based Tanimura & Antle, discusses the Monterey County, Calif. annual crop report as Sam McKinsey, left, vice president of agricultural operations at Green Giant Fresh by Growers Express, and Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, look on.
Mike Antle, center, executive vice president of Salinas-based Tanimura & Antle, discusses the Monterey County, Calif. annual crop report as Sam McKinsey, left, vice president of agricultural operations at Green Giant Fresh by Growers Express, and Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, look on.

For a second straight year, strawberries were the top grossing commodity in Monterey County, Calif., valued at about $751 million in 2010.

Lettuce traditionally ruled the Salinas Valley – and still does if you combine leaf and head categories, according to the annual crop report released June 14 by Eric Lauritzen, the county’s agricultural commissioner.

Leaf lettuce dropped 2% in value to $725 million. But head lettuce was up 17% over the prior year to $512 million, despite a drop in acres from 48,691 to 44,574.

Mike Antle, executive vice president of Salinas-based Tanimura & Antle, said the rise of strawberries has in some ways helped lettuce.

“We’re actually much more profitable with head lettuce than we were a few years back,” Antle said. “The acreage and volume have gone down but the value per acre has gone up. Some of that acreage has gone into strawberries, which is fantastic for our rotation. Strawberries have been a very effective tool for us to improve our soils and keep productivity up.”

The berries offer a high-demand alternative to rotation crops whose value may be less predictable, like broccoli and cauliflower. But these and other alternatives haven’t filled available acreage sufficiently to keep leaf lettuce out of some doldrums, Antle said.

“The sad story is that it’s not enough, so we’re actually planting more of the leaf items and the romaines,” he said. “Those are very easy to grow on the East coast in more of a local market. We always deal with homegrown in the middle of summer. We’re selling green leaf, red leaf and romaine as cheap as $4.50 a box, which basically covers the carton and labor with zero back on the farming investment.”

“The leaf items have increased over the years,” Antle said. “It’s almost like we’re reaching a plateau, and part of it has to do with the homegrown that we deal with. Last year romaine acreage was way up but the return per acre was lower.”

Romaine values in the county totaled $361.5 million in 2010, down from $390.9 million. Acreage was up from 33,150 to 36,294.

Though they remained Monterey County’s top grossing crop, strawberries dipped in value from about $756 million to $751 million. Acreage was down from 11,247 to 10,664.

Broccoli was the fourth-ranked crop at $297 million, up from $280 million. Broccoli acreage rose from 56,423 to 60,926.

Sam McKinsey, vice president of agricultural operations at Green Giant Fresh by Growers Express, said spring mix saw a decline. It was a $144 million crop, down from $166 million. “People are going to the baby head items,” he said.

The county’s exports rose 13.5% to about 563 million pounds. Of that, 49% was lettuce; broccoli and celery, 12% each; and strawberries 8%. The top destinations were Canada, Taiwan and Mexico.

Hard hit was Monterey County’s wine grape industry. Gross value dropped $65 million to $173 million.

“Pretty much everyone in the industry is going to want a glass of wine after looking at these numbers,” said Rhonda Motil, executive director of the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association. “It was a rough year.”

While some price points on wine saw increased sales in 2010, overall the industry suffered from consumers’ leaner spending habits, Motil said.