Producing one-eighth of all U.S. food and fiber—more than 300 different crops—on just three percent of its farmland, California is the nation’s biggest agricultural producer. It is also the most populous and fastest growing state. This combination presents considerable challenges for farms and farmland.
This year, we worked with partners throughout the state to make significant progress on each of the groundbreaking initiatives we’ve launched to address the challenges facing farms in California. To us, the challenges represent opportunities to advance our mission of saving farmland, promoting environmentally friendly farming practices and maintaining the economic viability of agriculture. Here is an update on how our strategy is working.
We’re helping to guide the first regional planning process in the San Joaquin Valley, California’s most important agricultural area. The Blueprint that emerged this year will save more than 120,000 acres of farmland by reducing urban sprawl. But to accomplish this, it must be incorporated into the land use plans of the region’s local governments, which is now our focus in the valley. At the same time, we have persuaded regional officials to produce a complementary “greenprint” that will inventory agricultural and natural resources and recommend strategies for their conservation and management.
San Francisco Bay Area Foodshed
The nine-county San Francisco Bay Area is losing about one percent of its remaining farmland every year as agriculture in the region struggles to compete—not only with development but also against farmers and ranchers in other areas of California who face lower costs and fewer urban headaches. To halt this trend, American Farmland Trust and partner organizations like the Greenbelt Alliance are promoting a regional agricultural economic development strategy to help farmers and ranchers capitalize on the market advantage they enjoy because of the region’s strong interest in locally grown food.
Our on-the-ground demonstration projects are helping convince growers that conservation practices do not have to reduce yields and profits. Our Nutrient BMP Challenge® program helped farmers growing feed for dairy cows adopt new environmentally friendly farming practices on 2,400 acres in the San Joaquin Valley. We are also beginning a new project in partnership with the Campbell Soup Company to help tomato producers reduce fertilizer and conserve water. And we are holding focus groups with farmers across the state to identify other obstacles keeping farmers from adopting practices that safeguard the environment.
California Agricultural Vision
One of the most significant things we have ever done in California is to orchestrate a process that led to the adoption by the State Board of Food & Agriculture of a set of strategies to address the major challenges facing California agriculture, among them water, regulations, workforce, invasive species and land use. This year, we have been working with leaders from agriculture, the environmental community and other interest groups to implement California Agricultural Vision, as the plan is called. Foremost among our priorities is an assessment of agriculture’s future land and water needs in light of a growing population, climate change and other factors likely to influence supply and demand for food, which we are pursuing in partnership with researchers at the University of California.
A Look Ahead
While continuing to make progress on the initiatives mentioned here, we will have to address new threats to farmland in the coming year. Among them is a high-speed rail system that—without good land use planning—threatens to encourage more urban sprawl. We also face hundreds of proposals to build industrial-scale solar energy facilities—you guessed it—on California’s irreplaceable farmland.
About the Author: Edward Thompson, Jr., California Director at American Farmland Trust has been with the organization since it was founded 30 years ago, serving in multiple positions and helping initiate a wide variety of projects.