The community of Merced is located in the eastern half of California’s San Joaquin Valley. The region has long struggled with high unemployment and was among the hardest-hit regions during the housing collapse. By nearly any metric applied, the Merced area is a disadvantaged community with high unemployment and significant economic challenges. The state’s water plans for Merced stand to significantly hinder the region’s water supply – and its water quality.
Two bright lights give hope in this community: agriculture and the University of California at Merced.
From its earliest days, agriculture has been a part of life in Merced County. With a raw product value of almost 3 billion dollars, agriculture is Merced County’s number one industry and largest employer. Merced County is also ranked fifth in the nation and state for total agricultural output. It is among the top four producers of cantaloupes, tomatoes, asparagus, figs, honey, almonds, cotton, eggs, chickens, turkeys, sweet potatoes, milk and cream.
Unlike most areas of the state, Merced Irrigation District does not have access to the federal or state water projects. MID relies exclusively on the Merced River. The District owns and operates its own reservoir to provide water for its thousands of growers, the vast majority of which are farming on less than 50 acres.
Crops grown with irrigation water supplied by MID generate about $1 billion in annual output in Merced County, both in the production of commodities and in the valued added by processing a portion of those commodities. Agriculture creates 4,888 jobs and generates $265 million in labor income.
UC Merced opened recently and is expected to bring future growth and diversification of jobs. However, even with those new jobs, agriculture will remain the cornerstone of the local economy in eastern Merced County.