Albion Monitor /Features

Harvest or Homes?

by Valerie Berton

The population of the Central Valley is expected to triple by 2040

Viewed 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.

California's next metamorphosis may be the Central Valley. The population of the agriculturally rich valley, which runs from Redding south to Bakersfield, is expected to triple by 2040. That growth could seriously impact agriculture in the nation's richest agricultural region, according to a new report by American Farmland Trust (AFT), which compared two future growth scenarios for 11 valley counties.

"Threatening to transform this magnificent valley from a mix of farms and natural areas into an urban desert"

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."

AFT, working with the Institute for Urban and Regional Development of the University of California and Strong Associates of Oakland, examined two growth scenarios -- one a "business-as-usual" approach that assumes an average of three houses built per acre, the other a more compact pattern that would double the density to an average of six homes per acre.

Under today's growth rates, described by some 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 policymakers 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 by 2040.

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.

Will Fresno County follow the example set by Los Angeles?

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.

"It's foolish and short-sighted 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."

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 vast 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 by 2040.

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 Vice, 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, its economy."

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 in services."

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 too shortsighted."

Growth Approaches

Stoller, co-owner of Sunridge Nursery, raises grape nursery stock for a clientele ranging from Robert Mondavi to E & J Gallo Winery. After phylloxera, a louse that feeds on grapevine roots, started attacking California's vineyards in the 1980s, Sunridge's business took off. 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 acquisitions.

"We consider this home," he says. "It's where I've been all my life. Some families are used to being mobile, but we're not."

Land that used to sell for between $1,000 and $2,000 an acre has skyrocketed to $10,000 to $20,000

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.

"We have a lot of foothills that would be great for developing," says Phillips, who began farming right after World War II and is passing the operation to two sons. "But it's easier to develop on flat land. There's just not as much available now as the town pushes out."

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 working it."

This article first appeared in American Farmlands Trust Magazine.

Albion Monitor January 31, 1996 (

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