AIC Issues Brief No. 4, February 1998.

Science and Technology In California Agriculture 

Julian M. Alston and David Zilberman*

Development and adoption of improved technology has been a central element in creating the marvel that is today’s California agriculture, as well as some of the problems it faces entering the 21st Century.

In this AIC Issues Brief we review the role of technology in development of California agriculture. First, we document changes in inputs, outputs and productivity for California agriculture during a historic period of technological growth: 1949-1991. The trend during this time was toward less land and labor, more capital and purchased inputs, and dramatically increased agricultural output of all types.

Second, we review the evolution and adoption of certain technologies that have been particularly important to the development of California agriculture, including technology spillovers from other parts of the world with Mediterranean climates and extensive use of irrigation.

Finally, we consider the sources of new technology and the role of government in developing technology.

Inputs, Outputs and Productivity, 1949-1991

Table 1 shows changes in California agricultural output from 1949 to 1991. These new data prepared by Barbara Craig and Philip Pardey are the best available to document the growth of agricultural productivity. Using a value-weighted quantity index, the table shows that California farmers produced more than three times as much output in 1991 as in 1949. Different commodity outputs grew at different rates and at different times. For instance, greenhouse and nursery output increased almost tenfold, while production of field crops—including wheat, rice, cotton, and corn—grew by only about three times, and actually declined slightly after 1980. Meanwhile, output of livestock, fruits and nuts, and vegetables steadily increased several times over. Across all categories, the index of outputs increased 218 percent.

Table 1. California Agricultural Output

Year Total Output Field Crops Fruits & Nuts Livestock Vegetables Greenhouse & Nursery
1949 100 100 100 100 100 100
1960 145 159 107 161 141 196
1970 177 169 133 209 170 278
1980 260 315 233 245 203 607
1991 318 282 267 340 249 977
Growth Rate
2.76 2.46 2.34 2.91 2.17 5.43
Source: Compiled by Alston and Zilberman using data provided by Barbara Craig and Philip Pardey. These data are updated and revised from those in a previous AIC publication that analyzed agricultural productivity: Valuing UC Agricultural Research and Extension (1994).

Inputs in California agriculture also changed during the four decades, as shown in Table 2. Use of purchased inputs (electricity, fuels and oil, feed, fertilizer and seed) more than trebled. The use of capital services—including physical inputs such as automobiles, tractors, trucks and combines, as well as biological inputs such as dairy cows, ewes and breeder pigs—grew by a little more than 50 percent. However, quality-adjusted land and labor use in agriculture actually declined over the same period. Across all input categories, the index of use increased 58 percent.

Table 2. Input Use in California Agriculture

Year Total Input Land Labor Capital Purchased Inputs
1949 100 100 100 100 100
1960 123 99 88 146 178
1970 120 93 68 125 222
1980 136 100 76 134 266
1991 158 92 90 156 334
Growth Rates – Percent per Annum,1949-91 1.09 -0.2 -0.25 1.06 2.87
Source: Compiled by Alston and Zilberman using data provided by Craig and Pardey.

Tables 1 and 2 show that, between 1949 and 1991, a 218 percent increase in California agricultural output was achieved with only a 58 percent increase in inputs. Expressing aggregate output per unit of aggregate input provides a measure of productivity. Thus, productivity (the index of output divided by the index of inputs) in California agriculture doubled in 42 years.

This means if input use had been held constant at the 1949 quantities, the use of 1991 technology would have resulted in twice as much output as 1949 technology. Alternatively, to produce 1991’s output using 1949 technology would have required twice as much inputs as were actually used.

Evolution of Technologies in California

Since the last century, California agriculture has placed high priority on development of institutions and adoption of technology to improve irrigated agriculture. This process included exchange of technology with other regions sharing a Mediterranean climate and crop base.Technology Spill-ins. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, a significant process of technology transfer to California was embodied in the knowledge of immigrants from Italy, Germany, France, Eastern Europe and Asia who settled in the San Joaquin Valley and near the Russian River. Bringing crop varieties and farming practices, these immigrants established the foundation for fruit and vegetable industries in California.

Transfers of technology to California from regions with similar crops and growing conditions have continued. For example, some South African entrepreneurs and Australian companies played major roles in technology transfer, and California has been a major beneficiary of the Binational Agricultural Research and Development (BARD) program with Israel. California also has benefited from new wheat and rice varieties developed by the international research centers of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). New, higher-yielding wheat varieties developed by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico, incorporating semi-dwarfing genes and rust resistance, were designed for developing countries but turned out to be especially suitable for use, either directly or as parental lines, in California and Australia. Today, virtually 100 percent of California’s wheat has important CIMMYT-bred ancestors. Similarly, improved rice varieties from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines have been relatively well suited for adaptation to California. Essentially all of California’s rice has some IRRI ancestors.

Irrigation has made the Central Valley into the most productive agricultural region in the world, and with increasing competition for water resources drip irrigation is increasingly important. Imported from Israel in the late 1960s, drip irrigation has been widely adopted and improved, particularly in high-value vegetable crops.

Technology Development. Meanwhile, public research and extension programs in California, as well as private research and development, have revolutionized virtually every aspect of the state’s agriculture:

  • The adoption of the tomato harvester and suitable new varieties of tomatoes was remarkably swift, starting from a base of zero in the early 1960s. By 1968, 95 percent of California’s processing tomatoes were mechanically harvested.
  • The state’s cotton industry expanded rapidly in the immediate post-World War II years, and California cotton growers adopted mechanical harvesting more rapidly and effectively than elsewhere. By 1965, virtually 100 percent of California’s cotton was mechanically harvested.
  • Mechanical harvesting and bulk handling equipment dramatically changed the fruit, nut and vegetable industries. Especially where the products were destined for processing use, the innovations were introduced in the 1960s or earlier and had become standard technology by the 1970s.
  • Genetic improvement has led to higher-yielding varieties with improved pest resistance, as well as other advantages. For example, California’s almond yields per acre roughly tripled between 1950 and 1990, in large part as a result of improved varieties. Combined with other technological improvements, this has helped spur the growth of the almond industry in California so that it now dominates the world market. Similar developments combining improved genetic stock with other technological improvements and management have vitalized many other Cinderella food-and-fiber industries in California, including other nuts (pistachios and walnuts), fruits and vegetables.
  • Varietal improvement also has meant better quality—sometimes at the expense of physical yields—or an increase in the number of available varieties. For example, in 1953 there were only three leading table-grape varieties, with Thompson Seedless the most important. By 1993, substantial acreages were planted to each of eight specific table-grape varieties. Extending the season and range of varieties has provided an important stimulus to demand for fresh grapes. In the case of California strawberries, varietal improvements extended a short season to almost year-round availability—at the same time allowing improvements in quality as well as huge yield gains. Another example is the lettuce industry. At one time, “lettuce” meant Iceberg lettuce, but today California grows many types and varieties of lettuce. The industry has successfully combined advanced genetic material with improved production and post harvest technologies, as well as better understanding of the market.

Pest Control. To a large extent, the ability of California farmers to grow more than 250 different crops stems from their ability to apply technologies to avoid, resist or control a multitude of diseases and pests.

Chemical pest controls have a wide range of benefits, including increased crop yields, lower production costs, improved product quality and shelf life, and reduced inventory losses. It is estimated that the cost of banning the use of chemicals in production of just five leading California crops (lettuce, strawberries, oranges, almonds, and grapes) would range from several hundred million to billions of dollars annually and would hit consumers with substantial price hikes—50 percent or more.

However, the productivity gains from pesticides can involve costly side-effects. Intensive use of some pesticides in high-value California crops means that care must be taken to assure worker safety. The soil fumigant methyl bromide is linked to depletion of atmospheric ozone, and there is doubt that it will be available in the long run. Because of such side-effects of chemical use, as well as its high cost, an array of nonchemical methods to address pest problems has been—and is still being—developed in California.

Computers. The computerized systems that have fundamentally changed other industries have been adapted by California farmers to some, but not all, aspects of their enterprises. In the dairy industry, for example, the use of computerized herd improvement programs is widespread. One reason is that dairy farmers had an intensive manual bookkeeping system and herd improvement program before the introduction of the computer—so that computerization simplified an existing procedure. In other agricultural applications, computerization often significantly alters production processes and decision making. Also, a substantial amount of the dairy industry software was developed and promoted in the public sector. Publically-sponsored computerized systems also guide irrigation decision-making, increasing water-use efficiency.

In terms of production value, the most important single sector of California’s agricultural economy in recent years has been the dairy industry—which has developed and improved its technology more rapidly than in other states. Milk production has grown relatively rapidly. Through improved technology in both dairying itself—especially milk harvesting and milk handling—and in dairy feed production, California has become the largest and among the lowest-cost dairy-producing states in the nation.


The transformation of California agriculture that began more than one hundred years ago entailed the progressive adoption and adaptation of various types of technologies including mechanical and biological innovations, and new chemicals. Improved methods of production, in conjunction with changing markets for inputs and outputs, have promoted dramatic changes in the range, mix, and total value of products from the state’s agriculture—as illustrated in Tables 1 and 2. These productivity improvements have resulted from private and public investments in California and in other places, especially other countries sharing a Mediterranean climate.

In maintaining this technological edge, public science policy will play a crucial role. New technology in California agriculture has been developed not only through investments in research and development, but through synergism between private-sector and public-sector institutions. Federal and state governments play significant roles in the process by:

  • Creating appropriate incentives for private firms to conduct research and develop technologies for which they can be rewarded by the market.
  • Financing and conducting public research and development in situations where the private sector will not adequately fund agricultural research and development from the point of view of the state or nation as a whole.

Science policy encompasses public-sector research and development, public policy related to private research and development, intellectual property rights, and technological regulation. The evolving nature of agriculture and markets for agricultural products, society and societal attitudes about science, institutional arrangements for science, and science itself mean that science policy must evolve as well.

In shaping science policy for California agriculture, it will be important to continue to find ways to maintain or increase outputs with the same or fewer inputs—but the new agendas also stress issues such as food safety, environmental effects and alternatives to agricultural chemicals. To even sustain (much less increase) agricultural productivity for the next century will require not only carefully designed and effective science policy, but specific technological solutions as well. In turn, this will require a sustained rate of investment by both the private and public sectors and a continuing but evolving role for the University.

The federal legislation that provides the foundation for much of the agricultural research undertaken in the United States is currently being negotiated in Washington. These decisions will play a crucial role, along with California’s own policies, in determining whether the past century’s successes will be repeated in the next century.

*Julian Alston is a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Davis, and an Associate Director of the Agricultural Issues Center. David Zilberman is a professor and Chairman of the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.