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Looking to the future

Sept./Oct. 2007 California Country magazine

Californians seek ways to protect disappearing farmland.



Californians seek ways to protect disappearing farmland


With an exploding population, Merced County farmers, like those in other rapidly growing counties, see increased urban encroachment on agricultural land. This cornfield will soon sprout more houses.

Consider how California looks now, and how it looked to Lisetta Viani when she stepped off a train in 1928. As an 11-year-old arriving from Lucca, Italy, she recalls a hot, dusty place. Worst of all, in small-town Merced, there was no one selling ice cream door to door.

"When we got to the ranch where we were going to live, I thought my father brought us to a desert," she said. "My father kept telling us, 'Don't worry. It'll change.'"

It turns out her father was right.

Merced, the Central Valley and all of California have changed significantly during Viani's lifetime. Back in the '20s, Merced's population totaled about 6,000 brave souls determined to make a living through farming. Now, more than 275,000 people live there.

Today many California farmers and ranchers wonder if surging population growth and the changes it brings will force them off the land and prevent future generations from farming.

But the experts say more is at stake than farming. Hanging in the balance is the quality of life for all Californians, including the need for more homes, cars, roads, water, schools and jobs.

The American Farmland Trust estimates that nearly a million acres of Central Valley farmland will be lost by 2040. In its recent report "The Future is Now: Central Valley Farmland at the Tipping Point?" researchers said, "Population growth is the main driver of land-use change in California. The state is now growing by about the population of the city of San Francisco every year, the highest rate in the country, and new residents have to live and work somewhere."

The California Department of Finance estimates that by 2050 the state's population will about double to 60 million. During that time, some counties are expected to see population jumps of more than 200 percent.

For residents of the growing cities and suburbs, that means more traffic, more crowding in schools and other blows to the state's quality of life.


Mario and Louie Bandoni survey a Merced County cornfield that is famous for its yields; however, the parcel has been subdivided for homesites and will be developed soon.

Almond farmer Louie Bandoni, who is Viani's nephew as well as president of the Merced County Farm Bureau, said farmers and ranchers understand the implications of such dynamic growth. That's why landowners, urban planners and elected officials throughout California are increasingly calling for good land-use decisions, he said.

Throughout the state groups like the Public Policy Institute of California and the Great Valley Center urge well-thought-out plans and sound public policy decisions to ensure the best quality of life for all Californians.

At the same time there is increasing public interest in buying locally grown food, ensuring an adequate domestic food supply and maintaining the environmental benefits generated on productive farmland.

Sustaining those values won't be easy, as Viani has observed during her 80 years in the Central Valley.

In 1944, she married John Viani and they continued to farm in Merced County. Viani, who just turned 91 and still actively farms, says she expects further dramatic changes in the century to come.

Viani has seen the switch from mule-drawn plows to the laser leveling of fields, along with the introduction of ingenious irrigation systems and the building of freeways to get crops to market. She has also watched the city of Merced grow. Today houses surround the farm she and her husband bought after they were married and their two children were born.

"I hate to see all this county's good farmland go up in houses," Viani said. "I have a ranch in the eastern part of the county and they're taking some of my ranch through eminent domain to make a road to the new university. They're going to take out some of my almond trees and I can't stop them. They need that road.

"What are you going to do, fight the state?"

Statewide, the loss of agricultural land during the past decade totaled about 480,000 acres, or an area four times the surface size of Lake Tahoe. During that same period, Merced County lost about 4 acres of farmland every day, equal to about five football fields.

Merced County is not alone in facing the prospect of unprecedented growth. Many counties also see astronomical population increases, including Sutter, Yuba, Kern, Madera, San Joaquin and Riverside. Policy makers, farmers and ranchers worry about the pressure this population explosion and resulting sprawl will put on farm and ranch land, as well as other finite resources like water and clean air.

"Collectively, we all want to preserve farming and know this ground can't be replaced," Bandoni said. "There's no better place in the nation to farm than this. The valley produces a quarter of the food Americans eat."

Decisions about current and future land use are made at the local level, by county and city planning commissions, boards of supervisors and city councils.

Like all California counties, Merced's land use is guided by a general plan. Right now the county is updating its plan. The three-year process will help guide officials as they make decisions on land use, housing, transportation, infrastructure, community design and other public policy issues.

"With local land use and zoning, it has to be driven by local residents," said Stanislaus County walnut grower Paul Wenger.

"People need to be involved in their local land-use decisions," said Wenger, who is also California Farm Bureau Federation first vice president. "They need to be prepared to help shape a vision for the future and they need to decide if they want locally produced food and the economic contribution of agriculture."

The benefit of good land-use planning and zoning, Wenger said, is that it offers a template to keep similar types of land uses together. This avoids hopscotch development, which has been going on throughout the Central Valley and California.

To make things worse, a drive through Merced County reveals housing developments where homes either aren't selling because of the real estate market downturn or they're being foreclosed on by banks. Today, in the middle of once-productive agricultural lands, half-finished subdivisions are virtual ghost towns.

"We don't want to mingle homes with agriculture," Wenger stressed. "There are too many problems at the ag/urban interface. People don't like the noise or the smells associated with farming. Yet they depend on what we produce to eat."

Viani said that through the years developers and real estate people have beaten a path to her door asking her to sell her land.

"After we were married, my husband and I moved onto 10 acres near the edge of town," she said. "Now my home property is right in the middle of everybody. It's in the city. The houses are surrounding me. But I still grow alfalfa here.

"People ask me, 'What are you going to do with this land?' I tell them I'm doing it. The real estate people say, 'How much do you want?' I tell them I have what I want. I want to live here.

"I'm holding my ground in Merced."

Learn More about land-use planning

Farm Bureau is actively involved in land-use planning issues. County Farm Bureau offices are a good place to go for current information on land use, zoning, development and planning issues.

Other ways to get involved:

  • Go to local planning meetings. Ask questions.
  • Check on the status of your county's general plan. Counties usually update their plan every 20 years, but often work is continuous. Many counties are in their update cycle right now. Most counties have the documents available for online viewing. People who own agricultural land, or who live in rural areas, should look closely at the "open space element" within the plan. Some counties have adopted optional agricultural elements.
  • Know how your community is zoned and watch for variances.
  • Understand how the Williamson Act works in your county and keep an eye on implementation of these important contracts. This program provides property tax relief to landowners in return for a contractual commitment to devote the land exclusively to the commercial production of agricultural commodities.
  • Check on county right-to-farm ordinances. These laws protect a farmer's right to continue customary farming practices despite a neighbor's objections. Make sure they're enforced.
  • Understand that state law requires mitigation of lost farmland. One approach is to require an acre of farmland to be protected by a conservation easement for each acre that is taken out of production for development. Experts say this isn't done in about 90 percent of cases.
  • Keep an eye on Local Agency Formation Commissions (LAFCo). These commissions can have a big impact on city spheres of influence and annexations that affect future land-use planning and development.
  • Learn more about local land trusts. These nonprofit, mostly volunteer organizations help protect farmland and open space. Experts say, however, they're usually underfunded.

Land-use planning is complex and increasingly important to all Californians. Learn more online at www.greatvalley.org or www.ppic.org. The California Department of Conservation's Land Resource Protection agency is online at www.consrv.ca.gov

Kate Campbell is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or kcampbell@cfbf.com.


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