Fresno’s Ag Leadership Is a Reminder of Poverty

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Fresno County recently touted its agricultural leadership. New numbers show that in 2018, Fresno County led the nation in agricultural production, narrowly defeating Kern County (Tulare County wasn’t far behind).

But it’s a distinction that may not be worth celebrating.

Why? Because agriculture is closely associated with poverty. The tallies in the national survey of agricultural production show the problem.

Agriculture takes up a lot of space, and it’s vital to people and the planet. It’s a big business in California, which grows 2/3 of America’s fruits and nuts, and more than 1/3 of its vegetables.

But it doesn’t produce much money—not for businesses and thus not for workers. Fresno managed to be tops in the nation by producing less than $7.9 billion worth of agriculture in 2018. 

That might sound like a big number to you and me, but let’s put that in context. A number of individual billionaires gained more than $8 billion in wealth in 2018 . And $7.9 billion is just a fraction of the quarterly revenues of companies like Apple ($65 billion) or Google ($40 billion).

That should remind us that Fresno, if it’s going to be wealthier, needs an economy that is less tied to agriculture. It needs to embrace its urban growth, and develop strategies to do more in higher-revenue segments like health care and technology.  


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