Harvest or homes?
by Valerie Berton
American Farmland Trust research highlights the need to protect agriculture
as population pressures grow
iewed from the air, Los Angeles County seems a vast
jumble of interconnecting subdivisions. As recently as 45 years ago, however,
the county boasted the nation's highest agricultural production.
California's Santa Clara Valley was once an agricultural
powerhouse. Now it is known as the Silicon Valley, reflecting the replacement
of agriculture by high technology. San Diego is still a large agricultural
player. But for how long? Useful lessons on our local future may be had
from our neighbors to the north.
California's metamorphosis is putting pressure on the
Central Valley. The population of this agriculturally rich valley, which
runs from Redding south to Bakersfield, is expected to triple by 2040. That
growth could seriously impact farmland in the nation's richest agricultural
region, according to a new report by American Farmland Trust, which compared
two future growth scenarios for 11 counties.
The Central Valley is a veritable cornucopia of food
and fiber producing more than 250 different crops. Six of the nation's top
10 agricultural counties are located in the valley; Fresno County, which
succeeded L.A. as the nation's no. 1 agricultural area, outproduces 24 states.
The collision of valley agriculture with the expected influx of new residences
in AFT's 11-county target area could hit the $13.3 billion industry hard
and impact everyone who enjoys fruit, vegetables, nuts and dairy products.
"Driven by one of the nation's highest population
growth rates, urban development is threatening to transform this magnificent
valley from a mix of farms and natural areas into an urban desert,"
says Edward Thompson Jr., AFT's director of public policy. "The impact
of future urban growth on both agriculture and taxpayers will vary dramatically
depending on how population growth is accommodated."
Under today's growth rates, described often as urban
sprawl, development would negatively affect 3.6 million acres of farmland
in 11 valley counties. One million acres of agricultural land would be claimed
outright; 2.6 million additional acres would be impacted by the proximity
to new residential growth. The farmland loss would reduce the value of the
valley's agricultural production by $49 billion, and agricultural support
business would lose $76 billion between now and the year 2040.
Recognizing that growth is inevitable, AFT's study also
identified a more compact, efficient scenario. If California policy-makers
opt for more compact development - an average of six homes per acre - the
picture could be redrawn. Compared to business-as-usual sprawl, compact
development would save 561,000 farmland acres, retain $26 billion more in
direct sale of agricultural products and save $41 billion in savings in
the impact to agricultural support businesses.
And because less farmland is urbanized, compact growth
would mean a $5 billion surplus to community coffers and a higher level
of services to taxpayers over the next 45 years. On the other hand, sprawl
would create a $24 billion cumulative deficit in the tax base, necessitating
a decrease in services - and quality of life - or hefty tax increases.
The possibility of losing much of the nation's most
productive, unique farmland combined with a new tax burden makes a compelling
case to grow wisely in California's Central Valley - a case we would do
wisely to study here in San Diego.
"It's foolish and shortsighted to allow big-lot
subdivisions on wonderfully productive farmland and counterproductive to
the economic health of the county," says Terrie Stoller, co-owner of
Sunridge Nursery near Bakersfield, which supplies 25 percent of the grape
nursery stock to California vineyards." When they build out these cities
and agriculture is all over in California, it will impact the entire world."
Says Erik Vink, AFT's California field director, "The
valley contains unique land that produces crops that cannot be grown elsewhere
in the United States. If almond-growing land, for example, is squeezed out
by residential development, no other U.S. location can replace it."
Alternative growth scenarios
Will all of California follow the example set by Los Angeles?
In 1994, AFT began analyzing the impact of different
growth patterns in 11 counties in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys
that comprise the most populated areas of the Central Valley region. Using
geographic information system technology, researchers at the Institute of
Urban and Regional Development completed maps of probable growth patterns
under two density scenarios. They divided the Central Valley into 750,000
tracts and rated the probability of each tract being developed in the next
45 years. The computer model was used to forecast future urban growth patterns
under three-units-per-acre and six-units-per acre scenarios, using the state
Department of Finance's population projection of 12 million valley residents
Relatively low-density development, the computer forecast
found, could directly or indirectly affect more than half of the 11 valley
counties' 6.7 million acres of irrigated agricultural land.
"For a good part of the country, the fresh fruits
and vegetables available during the winter months are almost entirely supplied
by the Central Valley," says Bob Vink, president of the California
Farm Bureau Federation. AFT's report raises awareness about the need to
plan for growth, he says. "If we grow in a more compact way, we can
retain the great Central Valley - its agricultural production, its jobs,
Strong Associates analyzed potential economic consequences
to both farmers and non-farm residents within or near areas likely to be
developed. Their findings predict a serious additional tax burden for Central
Valley residents, consistent with AFT cost of community services studies
that have shown farmland a far cheaper land use to service than residential.
"Low-density urban sprawl will cost more to service
than it will return in tax revenue," says Vink, who, with Thompson,
oversaw the project research. "That means communities will have to
raise taxes to make up the deficit or, more likely, suffer a diminution
The report was unveiled at a Sacramento press conference
in October. AFT's California field staff will spend the next several months
presenting the report to local governments, farm bureaus and civic groups
in hopes of influencing future growth patterns. The ultimate goal is the
founding of a valley-wide effort that will help reconcile agriculture, urban
development and environmental resources in the Central Valley.
"The top-producer distinction once enjoyed by Los
Angeles County now belongs to Fresno County, in the very heart of the Central
Valley," says Thompson. "It would be ironic if Fresno were to
become another Los Angeles because those concerned about its future were
Stoller, co-owner of Sunridge Nursery, raises grape nursery stock for a
clientele ranging from Robert Mondavi to E & J Gallo Winery. Today,
with 6 million to 8 million pest-resistant grape nursery stocks grown every
year, Sunridge boasts the largest production in the state.
Three years ago, the city of Bakersfield extended a
sewer line past the nursery. The city, eager to accommodate an influx of
new residents - and their anticipated tax dollars - was leapfrogging east.
Farmers like Stoller were asked to sell and move away.
It wasn't so easy for the Stollers, who produce vines
by taking cuttings from rootstocks that are at least five years old. Moving
would pose an enormous setback to Sunridge as well as its customers, the
heavy-hitters of California's wine industry.
"It's a cash-flow situation," Stoller explains.
"The local government feels it can flush its coffers with building
fees and new property taxes. They don't seem to be farsighted enough to
see what they're losing when they cover farmland with homes."
The sewer extension propelled Stoller into local politics.
She helped form the Kern Industry Coalition through the Farm Bureau and
began attending city council meetings, where the coalition offered draft
ordinances and resolutions. She collected letters from some of her best
known customers asking city planners not to rezone Sunridge land.
It paid off. City officials stopped rezoning one-quarter
mile north of the nursery.
Jim Quist is the third generation of his family to milk
cows in Kearney Park west of Fresno. With 650 cows, Quist needs all 700
acres he and his father currently farm. This year, he lost 160 acres when
the cities of Fresno and Clovis took part of the Quist land under eminent
domain to expand their municipal wastewater treatment facility.
"There's not a tremendous amount of available farmland
in the area," Quist says. "To replace that, more than likely we'd
have to go a far distance."
The wastewater treatment plant is still growing, keeping
pace with Fresno and Clovis. Quist and his neighbors are bracing for more
"We consider this home," he says. "It's
where I've been all my life. Some families are used to being mobile, but
While growth around Lodi, Calif., has been good for
his direct-market farming business, Don Phillips wishes developers and local
planners would curb their penchant for building on flat, arable farmland.
The veteran farmer raises 70 different fruits and vegetables on 500 acres,
grows wine grapes for his own winery, runs two fruit and vegetable stands
and sells at 30 farmers' markets every week. New residents mean new sales.
But recent commercial growth around Lodi has swallowed
up farmland he used to lease. Prime farmland with rich soils up to 40 feet
deep became home to the area's latest Wal-Mart.
Moreover, new development raises property prices beyond
a farmer's reach. In the last 20 years, land that used to sell for between
$1,000 and $2,000 an acre has skyrocketed to $10,000 to $20,000. "You
have to pay a million dollars for property that can't even support you,"
he says. "You can't buy land for farming if you can't pay for it by
With the exact same dynamics in place in San Diego,
our local Farm Bureau seems headed in the opposite direction [see next
article]. Is there any role for local citizens in this? You bet! While
some property owners resent other residents calling for planning changes
that protect farming, local farmers and ranchers who need these changes
to keep their operations viable in face of development pressure will appreciate
If you are interested in keeping farmlands for farms, please contact
The Campaign for Sustainable Food Choices at (619) 272-7370. Copies of AFT's
summary report are available by contacting American Farmland Trust's National
Office at 1920 N Street, N.W., Suite 400, Washington, D.C. 20036, (800)
431-1499. Cost is $10, including shipping and handling. AFT is a national,
nonprofit membership organization working to stop the loss of productive
farmland and to promote farming practices that will lead to a healthy environment.
What's happening to America's agricultural resources?
- Every minute, we lose three acres of productive farmland to urban sprawl
- shopping malls, housing subdivisions and the like.
- Since the first Earth Day in 1970, we've lost more than 40 million acres
of farmland to development. In North Carolina and Florida, 283,000 acres
of cropland disappear each year. In California, we lost 100,000.
- Each year, we lose 2 billion tons of topsoil to wind and water erosion.
As many as 1 billion tons wash into nearby waterways, carrying away the
earth's natural nutrients and any fertilizers and pesticides that have been
applied. This can damage water quality, fish and wildlife habitat and recreational
- Purchased fertilizers, pesticides and fuel are straining already tight
farm budgets and threatening the environment.
- Farmers spend an estimated $8 billion on fertilizers and $6 billion
on fuel each year. The overuse and misapplication of these inputs can threaten
the land's health and a farmer's profitability
Why save farmland?
merica's farmland is its most productive natural resource.
The nearly 1 billion acres of land in agricultural use are responsible for:
- Feeding, clothing and housing 250 million people in the United States
and millions more abroad.
- Serving as the foundation for our food and fiber industry, which provides
jobs for approximately 20 percent of the work force and contributes $820
billion to the Gross National Product.
- Providing scenic open space, many times just a short distance from urban
- Offering food and habitat for diverse wildlife.
- Maintaining a vital link to the nation's past.