Farmers greet the new year with less land, more funding

By JIM WASSERMAN Associated Press Writer
Wednesday January 02, 2002

SACRAMENTO (AP) — California’s 89,000 farm owners enter 2002 with 50,000 fewer acres to farm, thanks to urban growth. But they’re also finding more money than ever to save their farms for future generations. 

In a state that leads the nation in 79 farm commodities, authorities say 2001’s losses continue a trend in which an estimated 500,000 acres — equivalent of three Modestos — yield to city pavement every decade. 

“The Inland Empire is tops on the list,” said Erik Vink, who heads the state Department of Conservation’s land protection division. 

Riverside County — still the state’s ninth most productive farm county for its milk, citrus and vegetables — paved more than 15,000 acres of farmland between 1998 and 2000, Vink said. He said Inland Empire cities — Corona, Moreno Valley, Temecula, Chino and Ontario — are fast filling rural spaces with suburban commuter housing. 

Vink cited similar-scale farmland conversions in San Francisco’s East Bay and Sacramento County. Indeed, as California’s farm economy struggles with low commodity prices, suburban roof lines are more common in old farm towns such as Los Banos, Clovis and Tracy. On former vineyards along the Central Valley’s Highway 99, Turlock, Selma and Manteca grow auto malls and regional shopping centers. 

Though 2001’s 50,000 acres represents a bare fraction of California’s 9 million irrigated acres, experts warn that one-third of those being paved are the state’s best soils. And some warn that the state needs a far-reaching growth plan, possibly to steer development into foothills and away from the Central, Salinas and Santa Maria valleys and Oxnard Plain. 

The four regions grow most of the nation’s fresh produce. 

“Currently, the state doesn’t have much of a role,” said Alvin Sokolow, public policy analyst at the University of California, Davis. “It has no role.” 

Nonetheless, an old California industry that accounts for 13 percent of the nation’s farm receipts on 4 percent of its land, finds itself with new allies. Increasingly, farmers, cities and counties are tapping state and federal programs, even the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, for millions of dollars to save farms from the state’s relentless growth. 

Statistics show most of California’s 35 million residents live on 5.5 million acres of urban land. 

But as the state adds 600,000 people a year, government and private grant makers have begun something relatively new: buying development rights to thousands of acres of crop land. It’s an idea largely pioneered in small eastern states: Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New Jersey, said Chuck Tyson, who heads the California Farmland Conservancy Program. 

California’s five-year-old program has already put 13,500 acres off limits to urban development. It offers farm owners a one-time cash payment: the difference between the land’s farming value and the price a developer would pay. 

In return, owners must farm the land in perpetuity. 

In a 2001 report on farmland conversion, UC Davis specialists said typical farmland is worth $5,500 an acre. But the same land may be worth $40,000 an acre to a developer — or much higher if the area has sewers. 

“The idea isn’t about stopping growth, but hopefully, at the local level, defining areas that have the greatest strategic ag value,” Tyson said. Typically, local governments link farms with prime soils and form a wall steering growth elsewhere. 

“Some of the best examples are in Marin County,” he said, “and we’re increasingly seeing in it Monterey County, in the Salinas Valley.” 

Near Salinas, the state and the Packard Foundation, funded by profits from Silicon Valley’s Hewlett-Packard Corp., each paid $600,000 to preserve the 180-acre Dolan Ranch. In Livermore, the state bought development rights to 100 acres of Beyer’s Ranch owned by the winemaking Wente Family. The cost: $741,000. 

Now, Lake County is considering the idea to save pear orchards being lost to large-lot housing. 

Tyson said the state program received $25 million from Proposition 12, the $2.1 billion park and open space bond passed by voters in 2000. The Packard Foundation committed $175 million to conserve landscapes statewide, including farms. The foundation gave the Modesto-based Great Valley Center $5.7 million in 2000 to save strategic farmland. It scattered millions more among other groups with the same intent. 

Yet as housing shortages in job-rich areas push commuter housing deeper into rural areas, some say giving tax breaks and buying development rights is a small vision. Sokolow noted that California’s farmers are again starting a new year with no prospects for a statewide growth plan. 

“In political and policy terms, this state, the state government, has dropped the ball,” he said. 

“Clearly it’s a case where you can’t just depend on local control,” said Sokolow. “Ultimately, I hope, sooner than later, the state will have to stop in and develop a statewide sense of what the future should be. This has not been on any governor’s agenda in recent years,” he said. 


On the Net: 

California Farmland Conservancy Program: www.consrv.ca.gov/dlrp. 

University of California Agricultural Issues Center: www.aic.ucdavis.edu.