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  • Randall Benton / RBenton@sacbee.com

    Mayor Kevin Johnson proclaims Sacramento to be the "Farm-to-Fork Capital of America" in an October ceremony. Writer Tim Holt says it's not enough to promote sustainable farming; he says farms need protection from developers.

  • Tim Holt

Another View: Developers are the biggest threat to farmland

Published: Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 2E

In its Nov. 25 editorial, " 'Farm-to-Fork' needs meat on bone," The Bee correctly pointed out that support for locally grown food needs more than a mayoral proclamation.

But The Bee's call for promoting "ecologically sustainable farming practices," more locally grown food in school cafeterias, more school gardens, and a centrally located pavilion "dedicated to local agriculture" doesn't go far enough. No mention is made of the fundamental problem of disappearing farmland being lost to subdivisions and other forms of "development."

Development pressure is only one of several factors threatening local farm operations – there's also a federal farm policy that subsidizes commodities rather than produce, and the often grim economics of agriculture, including the year-to-year uncertainty of prices for farm products.

But development pressure, unlike these other factors, comes under the purview of local government. Over many decades Sacramento, through its elected officials, has demonstrated that support for local agriculture is not a priority.

The most notorious example of this was the deal that built the Kings' arena and brought the team to Sacramento back in the mid-1980s, a deal that involved rezoning thousands of acres of prime farmland for development – on a floodplain. Before that, farms in the Pocket Area to the south, in Carmichael to the northeast, and other major swaths of farmland throughout the region were sacrificed for development. More recently, in the years from 2000-10, according to state Department of Conservation figures, Sacramento County has lost 15 percent of its prime agricultural land, much of that due to development or farmland left fallow awaiting development.

If, as Mayor Kevin Johnson proclaimed, we want to celebrate our identity as a farming region "and champion it to the rest of the world," we need to start here at home by reducing the influence of developers in the political process. Both the city and county of Sacramento have laws on the books that provide for public financing of campaigns – they just haven't found the money to fund these reform programs. Making the funding of public financing a priority would be a good start toward guaranteeing that farmland won't be continually rezoned at the whim of developers. One has to wonder if pressure from developers isn't at least part of the reason those programs aren't being funded.

There is at least one little gleam of hope here. In 2009 the American Farmland Trust issued a report citing Sacramento County as "an acknowledged leader in efficient growth," noting that the county is accommodating 20 people on each acre of newly developed land, more than double the statewide average. This means that, compared with other parts of the state, less farmland is being gobbled up to accommodate the same number of people. But, as with unfunded public financing, "efficient" growth doesn't go far enough. It's still part of the problem of disappearing farmland, but at least things seem to be moving in the right direction.

All across the country, major cities such as Portland, San Francisco, Chicago and New York are taking bold steps to make their urban centers more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly. They are creating more urban plazas and parks to attract a younger generation willing to trade ranch houses and suburban lawns for enhanced public spaces and the vibrancy of urban life. "I want to stumble onto the fun," as one participant said in a 2006 study of 25-to-34-year-old college grads who had opted for city life.

The future, as represented by these young urbanites, is one of building up and not out. Sacramento should embrace that vision by expanding its urban center and making it more attractive and pedestrian-friendly. In so doing it will take another important step in preserving its existing farmland.

The Bee correctly concluded that the designation of Sacramento as a "Farm-to-Fork" capital has "got to be more than a slogan, a marketing brand and an annual festival." And it's got to go beyond pavilions, too, if we're going to get to the root of the problem of disappearing local farmland.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Tim Holt



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