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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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