This Thanksgiving, as Sacramento celebrates its ambition to become the farm-to-fork capital of California, let’s not forget to give thanks for the ultimate source of the food on our tables – the land itself.
Though we certainly owe gratitude to the farmers and ranchers who make the land productive, it is the inherent fertility of the soil, the availability and quality of water, and our favorable climate that make it possible for them to do so in such abundance. But it is not a foregone conclusion that agricultural land will continue to be there to feed us. If we want “farm to fork” to be more than a slogan, we must take affirmative steps to conserve that land.
During the past two decades, more than 400,000 acres of California farmland have been turned into housing developments, shopping malls, freeways and other urban uses. In the Sacramento region, only about one-third of the land developed since 1990 was of the highest quality, but in the San Joaquin Valley, by far California’s most productive agricultural region, the proportion was twice as high.
Even more troubling, only about nine new residents were accommodated for each acre of California farmland permanently taken out of food production. This is a tragic and unnecessary waste of a resource that is irreplaceable. Unless we do things differently, California will lose at least another million acres of farmland by mid-century.
Since at this time of year we are thinking about food and where it comes from, it seems an appropriate time to offer a “recipe” for conserving farmland in the Sacramento region and throughout California.
Thanks to private organizations such as the Yolo Land Trust and North Sacramento Conservancy, tens of thousands of acres of agricultural land in the Sacramento region have been permanently protected. But public investment is needed for the protection of farmland to make a significant difference. In Marin and Sonoma counties, the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars over two decades has protected so many farms and ranches that it is unlikely that government will bow to pressures to rezone the surrounding farmland for development.
Support agricultural enterprise. It’s not farmland without farmers. California agricultural today faces myriad challenges from pressure on irrigation water supplies and labor shortages to invasive pests and the ever-increasing burden of government regulations.
Sometimes, farmers and ranchers cite these problems as justification for wanting to keep open their option to sell the land for development. This is a self-defeating attitude that is not likely to win the kind of public support agriculture needs to address the challenges it faces. On the other hand, those challenges are real, and California’s overwhelmingly urban population needs to take them seriously – if it wants to continue to enjoy the bounty that we celebrate this Thanksgiving.