Despite the barrage of doom-and-gloom stories that appeared in the California media in 2009 – ranging from high unemployment and state budget woes, to drought conditions and global warming concerns – consumers should feel grateful at the beginning of a new year that our state remains the nation’s top food producer.

Regarding California’s growing water crisis, the good news is that many farmers and irrigation districts have been leading the way in making water-use efficiency improvements. The better news is that there is still tremendous untapped potential — in millions of acre-feet. Policy and water management changes are imperative to capture this potential, according to an optimistic report released this past summer by the Pacific Institute.

Another report is also as hopeful: “Agriculture’s Role in the Economy,” a study by the UC Agricultural Issues Center notes the many positive things to consider while moving into a new decade. For example, California generates about $97.7 billion of the state’s total sales output, 3.8 percent of jobs, 2.5 percent of labor income and $39.6 billion (2.9 percent) of labor and property income and indirect business taxes. Of that $97.7 billion, agricultural production and processing in the Central Valley – the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys combined – accounted for 43 percent.

With reference to the combined agricultural production and processing industry, for every $1 of direct labor income in agriculture, $1.27 additional labor income is generated in the state.

If the above facts aren’t enough to boost your spirits, consider the global context: If California were a country, its agricultural value would rank between fifth and ninth among countries of the world, depending which currency exchange rates are used, ahead of Canada, Mexico, Germany and Spain. California’s agricultural exports reached an all-time high of $10.9 billion in 2007, and exported agricultural products to more than 156 countries worldwide.

It is the quality, freshness and unparalleled flavor of our state’s food products that make California’s food enjoyed around the world. The state’s agricultural abundance includes 400 different commodities. Among these, the state produces about half of U.S.-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables. To have this amount of year-round diversified crops is indeed one of California’s key strengths.

Another big plus for California consumers is the fact that in our state we have the safest, most abundant and affordable crops anywhere on the planet. This is partially because of rigorous safeguards enforced by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), the agency that oversees the registration of crop protection products into our state and enforces some of the most stringent crop production regulations in the world.

No doubt about it, California has some strict rules when it comes to protecting public health.

Not to bore you with too many facts, it is worth noting that our state has 75,000 farms and ranches — less than 4 percent of the nation’s total, yet our agricultural products represent almost 13 percent of the nation’s total value. One other factoid to consider about our state: California has some of the most agriculturally productive counties in the nation. Of the top 10 agricultural producing counties nationwide, nine are located in California.

In 2007, Fresno remained the No. 1 county in the nation with a $5.35 billion in ag value. Fourteen of the state’s counties recorded more than $1 billion in agricultural value, according to their county agricultural commissioner crop reports.

Keeping ahead of the game is the annual work of thousands of crop advisers, crop production and crop protection manufacturers, applicators, growers and a whole list of supporting businesses. They are kept busy year in and year out keeping our food supply safe and plentiful.

When asked, children will tell you that their food comes “from the corner grocery store.” We laugh and smile. Those of us in the industry take a tremendous pride in keeping those stores well stocked and thriving for our statewide, national and global consumers. And let’s all remember, the agricultural economy doesn’t stop at the edge of the field or at the processor. The agricultural economy drives jobs in trucking, ports, university research, bakeries, and many other industries that depend on agriculture.

For more than 50 years, the men and women who work California’s fertile fields have made this state the nation’s No. 1 agricultural producer and exporter. If it’s for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, all or a portion of the meal was probably grown right here in the Golden State.

As Californians we should thank our lucky stars to live in a state so bountiful with food. And if you work in agriculture feel good about what it is you do, and be optimistic about the future.

So the next time you are driving down Highway 99 or Interstate 5 and see those signs in a farm field near the side of the highway saying simply “We Farm, You Eat,” give a smile of recognition that you belong to a very important team with a very special mission.