SALINAS, Calif. — Leaf lettuces topped the dollar pyramid in Monterey County in 2011, grossing $777.4 million, dropping strawberries from the No. 1 spot for the first time in three years

Leaf lettuce tops Monterey County cropsStrawberries were valued at $713.8 million, and they could easily surpass that in 2012, if current trends continue.

Eric Lauritzen, county agricultural commissioner, unveiled the numbers at his annual crop report June 26. Gross crop values totaled $3.85 billion — the third-highest ever, but trailing the last two years.

“While values declined slightly, about $153 million or 3.8%, agricultural production remained higher than any other year prior to 2009,” Lauritzen said.

Strawberries were down from $751.1 million thanks to an unusually cool spring. Acreage was up 3%, but production fell 5.7%, said Jodi Reinman, public relations manager for the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission.

Now things are different, Reinman said.

“It’s hard to tell, but right now we’re having record weeks,” she said. “Statewide we’re already over 100 million trays, which is a little more than last year. It looks like there’s going to be plenty of strawberries around.”

After a modest uptick last year, head lettuce continued its slide of the past decade, down from $511.9 million to $454.2 million in Monterey County.

“Iceberg is just less and less used as a single item on the shelf,” said David Hart, vice president at Salinas-based Royal Packing Co., a subsidiary of Dole Fresh Vegetables.

Consumers continue to shift toward value-added and packaged salad products, he said, while growers find alternative crops like strawberries appealing.

The standout was leaf lettuce, up from $724.6 million to $777.4 million. At 87.3 million cartons, production was down slightly from the year before, but unit value rose from $8.30 to $8.90. The category includes romaine, butter, red leaf and green leaf, plus endive and escarole.

“The attention is always on the No. 1 crop, but what’s important to note is the diversity of our agricultural production with 10 crops that exceed $100 million in production value,” Lauritzen said. “We have 26 crops that exceed $10 million in value ….This is one of the most important counties in the nation.”

While some crops lost value, Hart found reason for optimism in exports.

“There’s disappointment here,” he said of the report. “The dollars don’t match up to the previous year. But there are just huge gains in export dollars across all the vegetable segments.”

Lettuce exports tallied 378.8 million pounds in 2011, up from 279.8 million. Broccoli rose from 68.4 million pounds to 95 million. Tomatoes were up from 5.6 million to 21.5 million. Canada drew 67% of the county’s exports; Japan, 10%.

“That’s good testimony to the creativity of the ag business,” Hart said. “There’s more pressure around the country. Buy local programs definitely have an impact on shipping our product. But I’m really pleased to see export numbers this high.”

Jim Bogart, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, said the report showed the overall strength of the industry.

“While local, state and national economies are tanking, agriculture here continues to hold its own,” Bogart said. “That’s a direct reflection of the resourcefulness, the resilience and the cutting-edge technologies that the Central Coast continues to lead the world in.”

Besides vegetable and fruit production, the crop report includes values for wine grapes, nursery and ranch products, plus seed and field crops.