Tag Archives: California

A Vision for California Agriculture: An Interview with Edward Thompson, Jr., California Director, American Farmland Trust

What brought you to this kind of work and has kept you engaged for your 32 years with American Farmland Trust (AFT)?

I started out as an environmental lawyer at the Environmental Defense Fund back in the early 1970’s. We were working on pesticides, water quality and quantity and wetlands, and the common thread that runs through all these issues is agriculture. So that was how I got interested in farming. Then I had a chance to go work on what may have been the first farmland preservation project in the country with The National Association of Counties. They had just gotten a Rockefeller grant to design and advance a national farmland protection policy that eventually became the Farmland Protection Policy Act of 1981.

I was doing that and pulling together information about what was going on with farmland protection in various places around the country, when I was approached by Doug Wheeler and Pat Noonan who had been asked by Peggy Rockefeller, AFT’s founder, to put together what was supposed to be a “Nature Conservancy for agriculture.” They asked me to serve as AFT’s first legal counsel as well as publications editor. I thought it was a great opportunity. Doug became AFT’s first president and Pat its eventual chairman. The rest is history.

How did you come to be AFT’s California director?

I have held a number of positions since joining AFT, including general counsel, national policy director and senior vice president. In each of these capacities I have been involved in California, the nation’s leading farm state. So, when I was asked in 2003 to take over our operation out here, I jumped at the chance. In my view, this is one place where AFT simply cannot afford to fail. One-eighth of U.S. agriculture is at stake, including more than half of our healthy fruits and vegetables. Urban sprawl was invented here and remains endemic, consuming 50,000 acres of farmland a year.

What accomplishment in the past year are you most proud of?

AFT helped launch a “greenprint,” which is intended to be a set of strategies for the conservation and sustainable management of land and water resources, in the San Joaquin Valley. This is California’s most important agricultural region, the southern half of the Central Valley. It’s like a fruit forest 250 miles long by 50 miles wide. In the spring when all the fruit, the almonds and the peaches and the plums everything are in bloom, it’s just astonishing. But it’s under siege from urban growth with a population of four million expected to reach nine million by mid-century.

We hope the “greenprint” will address the environmental challenges facing agriculture like maintaining an adequate irrigation water supply and help reinforce the idea that the farmland surrounding the Valley’s cities is not just white space on the map awaiting its “highest and best use.” In most cases, agriculture is the highest and best use. The “greenprint” will, thus, supplement something called the San Joaquin “Blueprint,” which is a plan for more compact, efficient urban development in which AFT also played a key role. It will save something like 150,000 acres of farmland that would otherwise have succumbed to urban sprawl in this region. That is, if local governments actually implement the plan. AFT has been digging in at the local level in an effort to get cities and counties to amend their land use plans to conform to the Blueprint. The City of Fresno, the biggest city in the Valley, is leading the way on this. It recently adopted a new plan that is a model for “smart growth” that will save farmland and reduce the greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. Through its Groundswell network, AFT helped rally a diverse group of hundreds of people who turned out at the hearing to encourage the city council to vote for the plan.

What’s the most important thing that can be done to save farmland in California?

In California, almost all the cities are surrounded by very productive, irreplaceable farmland. As they grow, we’re going to have to sacrifice some of that land so people can have places to live and work. But to keep the loss to a minimum, we need to use the land more efficiently. Cities ought to be thinking more like farmers, in terms of yield per acre. Farmers want to get the most crop they can on each acre they farm, that’s how they make money. Cities should be thinking in a similar way in terms of how many people, how many jobs, how many dollars of economic activity they can get out of each acre of farmland that is paved over. That will pay dividends for them, too, not only by saving farmland, but also by conserving water and energy and, perhaps most importantly, reducing the cost to taxpayers of providing public services to new development.

Ed ThompsonAbout the Author: Edward Thompson, Jr., California Director at American Farmland Trust has been with the organization since it was founded more than 30 years ago, serving in multiple positions and helping initiate a wide variety of projects.

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Report Charts Progress Toward Achieving California’s Agricultural Vision

California agricultural leaders are making progress on a broad front to address major challenges to the industry’s sustainability, guided by goals established by the State Board of Food and Agriculture. And they are doing so by collaborating with environmentalists and representatives of other groups with an interest in the food system. These are the conclusions of a new report by American Farmland Trust (AFT) on the progress of California Agricultural Vision.

California Farm Fields on cover of From Strategies to Results report

The report, From Strategies to Results, stems from a process that was started in 2008 by the State Board and the California Department of Food & Agriculture. California Agricultural Vision (Ag Vision) was designed to identify and promote actions that farmers, ranchers and others in the food system should take to assure a healthy population, a clean environment and a profitable industry.

From Strategies to Results documents more than 40 initiatives being taken to implement the recommendations of an earlier AFT report, Strategies for Sustainability, published in late 2010. Those recommendations emerged from a two-year process of engaging more than a hundred stakeholders, which was facilitated by AFT at the request of the State Board. A blue ribbon Ag Vision advisory committee of twenty leaders representing agriculture, the environment, hunger and nutrition, farm labor and other interests, formulated the final recommendations. Co-chaired by former AFT president Ralph Grossi and Luawanna Hallstrom, a member of the State Board, it continues to meet periodically to track progress and encourage broader participation.

We would like to hear from you!

Read California Agricultural Vision: Strategies for Sustainability (2010)

Read the new From Strategies to Results and share in the comment space below what you believe are the most important and promising of the more than 40 initiatives described in the report.

Vote for your top priority Strategy for Sustainability

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Ed ThompsonAbout 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.

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California: A Year of Progress

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.

Hoop houses and vegetable farm in CaliforniaSaving  San Joaquin Valley Farmland

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.

Environmental Stewardship

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.

Ed ThompsonAbout 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.

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Farmland By the Numbers!

Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2007 National Resources Inventory story of our nation’s farm and ranch land loss in numbers. The 2007 National Resource Inventory is the most comprehensive natural resource database in the United States—tracking conditions and trends on non-federal land from 1982 to 2007.

Farmland Loss map
Map: Every State Lost Agricultural Land.
Bright Spots Chart Bar Chart: States with the biggest farmland loss
Chart: California vs. Florida Farmland Loss
Pie Chart: States that Developed the Largest Percentage of their Land

The analysis behind these graphics was conducted by our Farmland Information Center (FIC) and first appeared in our Winter 2010 issue of American Farmland magazine.  Stay tuned as we release more information on farmland loss across the nation.

Want to do something about it? Send a letter to your state lawmakers today and tell them to protect the precious farm and ranch land in your state! Feel free to re-post these images, but please link back to us.

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Reinventing Agricultural Conservation in California – Focus on Farmland

Last year, TIME Magazine ran a cover story that called California “an apocalyptic mess … dysfunctional … broke.” Then it concluded, “It is still the dream state … the greenest and most diverse … the most globalized … an unparalleled engine of innovation.” Think of it what you will, California is unquestionably an agricultural leader, producing one-eighth of all U.S. food and fiber – more than 300 different crops – on just three percent of its farmland. Following is the first of a three part series that explains how American Farmland Trust is helping to reinvent agricultural conservation in the cornucopia on the Coast — written by our California Director, Edward Thompson, Jr., who has been with the organization since it was founded 30 years ago.

California is not only the nation’s biggest agricultural producer; it is also the most populous and fastest-growing state. One out of every six acres of all the California land developed since the 1849 Gold Rush was paved over in just the past two decades. During this period, more than a half million acres – 840 square miles – were urbanized, most of it highly-productive and largely irreplaceable irrigated cropland.

But the most troubling statistic is this: on average, only 9 new residents are being accommodated for each acre of California land permanently removed from food production. Imagine a couple of four-person teams playing touch football in the Rose Bowl – with a single referee – and you get a picture of how spread out that is. Suburban sprawl is a California invention and, despite a growing awareness that it’s bad for the economy, the environment and our food supply, it persists as perhaps the most significant long-term challenge facing agriculture in the Golden State.

Not that it’s the only challenge. Ask farmers and ranchers what they consider the most important problems they now face and you’re likely to hear government regulation, shortages of irrigation water and farm labor, invasive species and unfair foreign competition. Ask the person on the street and they’ll probably say that California agriculture uses too much water, isn’t as environmentally friendly as it could be and that there isn’t enough locally-grown food to satisfy the skyrocketing demand in a state that has been a bellwether of the “foodie” culture. (In fact, most of the fresh fruits and vegetables sold in California markets – indeed, in the United States – are grown in the state, but aren’t always labeled as such.)

Then there are challenges that loom on the horizon but, in comparison with the more immediate problems, haven’t received as much attention from either agriculture or consumers: A changing climate that is likely to further exacerbate water shortages in a state totally dependent on irrigation. The increasing scarcity and cost of fossil fuels on which agriculture depends, not only to power tractors and irrigation pumps, but also for fertilizer and pesticides. And inadequate infrastructure, everything from crumbling aqueducts to the lack of cold storage devoted to local rather than national distribution of produce.

What all these challenges have in common is that they raise a fundamental question about the sustainability of California agriculture. Can it continue to produce enough healthy food for a growing global population while maintaining the health of the planet and its own residents? Since opening its first California office in 1983, American Farmland Trust has been working with farmers, ranchers and many other partners to address that question on three fronts: farmland protection, regional food systems and environmental stewardship.

Part One: Protecting California Farmland

The central fact about farmland in California, as in much of the country, is that expanding urban areasare situated right in the middle of the most productive, versatile land. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the San Joaquin Valley (map), which accounts for 60 percent of California’s $38 billion annual agricultural sales. There, the most fertile, well-watered and least environmentally problematic farmland (dark green) traces the Highway 99 corridor beneath the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains on the east side of the Valley. Strung out along that freeway are six major urban areas and a host of smaller ones – all of them expanding into the surrounding land. About 4 million people now live in the San Joaquin Valley, a figure expected to reach 9.5 million by the year 2050. That’s equivalent to adding four more major urban areas and, at the present rate of conversion, it would consume another 330,000 acres of the Valley’s best farmland.

This kind of growth puts such pressure on farmland that the traditional approach used by AFT and others to save land, the purchase of conservation easements, doesn’t have much of a chance of success in the San Joaquin Valley. It’s simply too expensive and too slow. So, the centerpiece of our strategy in California has been the management of urban growth through better planning and stronger land use policies, building a framework for more compact, efficient development step-by-measured-step.

Encouraging Smarter Growth in the San Joaquin Valley

Since 2004, AFT has participated in the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley – a blue ribbon commission charged by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger with addressing the Valley’s many problems, from poor air quality and poverty to crime and conservation. The group called for a regional planning exercise that became the San Joaquin Valley Blueprint, the first time all eight counties in the region have worked together to map out future urban growth. Last year, with AFT participating on the regional advisory committee for the Blueprint, officials endorsed a compact growth strategy that will, in comparison with a continuation of present development patterns, save more than 115,000 acres of the Valley’s most productive farmland by the year 2050.

Though this is an encouraging result, we argued for an even more ambitious plan that would have cut farmland loss in half, saving 175,000 acres and $2.3 billion in annual agricultural economic activity. That plan was rejected by local government officials, even though it was backed by a strong majority of citizens who attended a regional summit meeting. Undaunted, we’re pursuing three new initiatives to protect more farmland in the San Joaquin Valley.

Using California’s Landmark Climate Bill as a Lever of Land Use Policy.

AFT is a founding member of a consortium of nonprofit groups called Climate Plan, whose mission is to forestall and mitigate climate change through better land use. The connection is that auto travel is one of the main sources of greenhouse gases (GHG) and is closely tied to the pattern of land development. The more spread out it is, the more people have to drive. So, the solutions to global warming and farmland protection are the same: more compact urban growth.

Under state law, the California Air Resources Board is now setting targets for greenhouse gas reduction through changes in land use and transportation patterns. The target recently established for the San Joaquin Valley calls for a 12 percent reduction in GHG by 2030, which can be accomplished only if the Valley’s urban areas grow more efficiently, using less farmland per person, than the Blueprint calls for. That would require local officials to adopt a more aggressive growth management strategy like the one AFT advocates, or forfeit state and federal transportation funding. In the November election, this strategy got a boost when voters resoundingly rejected Proposition 23, which would have effectively repealed the state’s climate law.

Rallying Citizens to Promote Official Accountability for Land Use Decisions

Our new “Groundswell” initiative in the San Joaquin Valley is intended to increase public participation in land use decision making and, thereby, hold elected officials more accountable for their actions. The Blueprint decision illustrates the need. Though Valley officials rejected the more ambitious plan that would have saved more farmland – and resulted in less greenhouse gases, air pollution, habitat loss, energy consumption and taxes spent on public services – there has been little hue and cry from the public. We hope to change this by rallying nonprofit organizations concerned about many things that define the quality of life in the Valley to encourage decisions that will serve all their interests. To date, 30 organizations have joined the network and a web site www.groundswellsjv.org serves as their communications hub.

San Joaquin Valley “Greenprint”

At AFT’s urging, San Joaquin Valley officials recently agreed to do a “greenprint” plan or strategy for the conservation of rural lands that will complement the Blueprint plan for urban growth. They have applied for a state grant to conduct a formal study of the region’s agricultural, natural and recreational resources with a view to protecting the most important areas and harmonizing their many uses. AFT now serves on the steering committee for the San Joaquin Valley Greenprint and in partnership with the University of California at Davis, we have begun to devise a new approach to identifying the farmland that is most important to protect because it is the most likely to sustain long-term commercial agricultural production

Part II: Taking local food to scale and a fresh look at environmental stewardship in the Golden State

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