What would happen to Yuba-Sutter's economy if agriculture suddenly disappeared?
A recent study provided the beginnings of an answer to the question by examining the effects of converting agricultural land into uses that are consistent with being in a floodplain — meaning that higher value crops, such as walnuts and almonds, would not be viable.
The study, by Stephen Hamilton, professor and chair of economics at California Polytechnic State University, reinforces what is already mostly known: Agriculture is the lifeblood of the local economy, the foundation that props up a number of peripheral industries and provides billions of dollars of indirect benefits to the counties.
"It's the piston that drives the engine for multiple sectors of our economy, from banking to crop production materials to trucking, the list can go on and on," said John Munger, president of the Yuba-Sutter Farm Bureau and operations manager at Montna Farms.
The study was commissioned by the Yuba-Sutter Farm Bureau and the Sutter Butte Flood Control Agency in response to a possible plan from the Central Valley Flood Protection Board to widen the Sutter Bypass, a flood control feature in western Sutter County, by either 1,000 feet or 2,000 feet.
Widening the bypass by 2,000 feet would move an estimated 5,324 acres of land into the active floodplain, which would limit the type of crops that could be planted and allocate more acreage to habitat.
The study concluded that widening the bypass by 2,000 feet would result in an annual loss of 106 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs and have an annual impact of $10.5 million, manifesting in reduced crop values, lost wages and a loss of money spent in the community to purchase food, clothing, automobiles, real estate, education and health and social services.
The total economic impact over 30 years would be an estimated $318 million.
The study assumes the crops in the new floodplain would be mostly rice and processing tomatoes. The study only examines a fraction of the farmland in Sutter County, which totaled about 330,000 acres, according to the 2013 Crop Report.
There's plenty more when you start tallying up the economic impact of agriculture.
Agriculture also contributes to county governments and local schools through property taxes.
Of the $4.4 billion in assessed value in Yuba County, $631 million is from agriculture. Taxed at 1 percent, agriculture lands return $6.3 million in taxes, of which about $1.3 million goes to the county general fund.
In Sutter County, the total value of agriculture lands is $1.8 billion, which returns about $18 million in property taxes. Almost $3 million of the property taxes go to the county general fund.
In all of Sutter County, agriculture production totaled almost $600 million and returned more than $2.44 billion to the economy in 2013, according to the 2013 Crop Report.
In Yuba County, agriculture production totaled $234 million and returned $925 million to the economy in 2013, according to the 2013 Crop Report.
As a basic rule of thumb, for every dollar a farmer gets, the community gets between $8 and $10, said Dave Burroughs, Northern California Regional Agriculture Manager for Rabobank.
Ag jobs decline in Yuba-Sutter
While agriculture is still the backbone of the local economy, it's not the jobs provider it was in the past.
Throughout the 1990s, the average monthly employment in the Yuba-Sutter farm sector was more than 6,000 jobs and peaked at 7,100 jobs in 1997.
In the 2000s, it was routinely below 5,000 jobs. In 2013, the average monthly employment in the farm sector was 4,600 jobs.
Part of that decline could be attributed to an increase in mechanized farming practices, but agriculture is still supporting jobs in the affiliated industries it props up, said Stephen Hamilton, professor and chair of economics at California Polytechnic State University.
"The employment is still there, but it's harder to see it," Hamilton said. "It takes less farmers to feed 100 people, and there's a lot of concentration in the industry. That's the nature of the business, but the value is still there."
CONTACT reporter Andrew Creasey at 749-4780 and on Twitter @AD_Creasey.