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Not many people think of cattle and alfalfa as a Mono County thing. Mountains and ski lifts, hiking and snowboarding, biking and running, sure.
Those bovines you see as you drive past the airport on the way to Crowley Lake grazing in the rising sun? They are far more than something iconic and Western and rustic to look at.
Those cattle are worth millions of dollars.
Those green, verdant fields you see up by Bridgeport, back-dropped by the towering Sawtooth ridge that feed them?
Those square strips of rich, green fields pushed up hard against the foot of the rugged, dust-scoured White Mountains in eastern Mono County?
Millions and millions more.
The truth is, agriculture is the second greatest source of revenue coming into Mono Countyâ€”hard on the heels of tourism. This past year, the industry hit an all-time record, bringing about $53 million (for 2011) into the county, a 26 percent increase over last yearâ€™s numbers. Beef, alfalfa and garlicâ€”agriculture is no small potatoes for the county.
â€śAgriculture is a large part of our county, our history, more than most people know,â€ť said Mono Countyâ€™s District 2 County Supervisor, Duane â€śHapâ€ť Hazard, whose district encompasses the majority of the countyâ€™s agricultural land.
In fact, agriculture is the one micro-economy in the county that has not only survived the recession that hit the county in 2008, but has now bounced back. And Mono Countyâ€™s agriculture industry is even larger than Inyo County, even as popular perception is that Inyo is the home of ranchers and farmers and Mono is ski-land.
Mono and Inyo County agricultural commissioner George Milovich said thereâ€™s no reason for the industry to stop growing. In fact, mirroring a statewide trend, he said agriculture is the only industry in the county that has surpassed its pre-recession productivity.
Itâ€™s about being smart about the trends that will make money instead of losing it, he said. Ranchers and farmers live on the edge, with costs for everything from diesel to equipment doubling and quadrupling in recent years. If they arenâ€™t smart, if they arenâ€™t paying attention to what the market wants, they go down fast.
â€śThereâ€™s a big market for our alfalfa here,â€ť he said. â€śItâ€™s very high in protein because we only grow one crop a year. Thereâ€™s a big demand for it as high quality feed, due to this.â€ť
Going organic has tapped into the growing market for organic beef.
â€śOrganic beef needs to be fed organic hay,â€ť he said. â€śBeef prices are the highest Iâ€™ve ever seen this year.â€ť
Beef, alfalfa, garlic, dairyâ€”these are some of the most profitable crops right now in the county, he said.
Mono County ranchers and farmers have figured out how to survive and even thrive in a very tough world, he said.
Hazard, for one, isnâ€™t surprised. His supervisorial district covers southern Mono County, including the big cow and calf operations near McGee Creek, and the alfalfa and other crop fields of the Tri-Valley area near Chalfant and Benton.
â€śRanchers are on the cutting edge,â€ť he said. â€śThese guys are thriving where most industry is still struggling to recover from the recession and they are an example of smart thinking.â€ť
Itâ€™s not all roses in agriculture land though. The threat of invasive weeds and other pests that could devastate the gains made in the past years is never far away. The incredible rise in fuel costs and equipment costs make it a constant struggle to survive and even when those things are not in play, the natural world leaves ranchers and farmers with plenty to worry about.
â€śItâ€™s always something,â€ť Milovich said. The words â€śinvasive weedsâ€ť sound relatively innocuous, but the weeds themselves are as destructive as any natural disaster.
For example, a weed called perennial peppergrass is well on its way to being a big problem in the region, he said.
â€śThe pepperweed is a kind of mustard that grows a huge, 30-foot deep, tap-root that sucks water out of the ground, and takes water away from other plants,â€ť he said.
It has already devastated the Honey Lake area up on the border with Nevada and in the Truckee River area without vigilance. This could become a problem in the Eastern Sierra as well.