Driving down Live Oak Avenue just west of Galt, green fields divided into long rectangular lots by white picket fences give way to a set of run-down buildings and cows.
It’s the old Rocha Bros. Dairy, operated for decades by George, John and Frank Rocha. These days, another dairyman rents the facility and the 50 acres of land from the Rochas, who would like to close it down for good.
They want to divide the land into 25 lots to sell to people in search of small country estates.
George Rocha, 67, said landowners around him began converting their land in the early 1980s as they retired and realized it was more valuable for residential development. The Rochas’ property remains an agricultural island in the neighborhood.
“As the years went on, more and more of our neighbor farmers retired and sold off and the land was bought by people who wanted 2-acre ranchettes,” he said.
In the intervening decades, the once-agricultural land transitioned into neat homes with large backyards, intermingled with dairies and fields. The Rocha family has already converted and sold some of the land they owned, but a quirk in the Sacramento County General Plan might prevent them from dividing up the last 50 acres.
George Rocha said he found out four months ago that a county general plan rule limits his family to dividing the land they have left into 10 5-acre lots, which are less valuable than the 2-acre lots.
For years, the area roughly bounded by Twin Cities Road, Midway Avenue, Kost Road and Christensen Road fell under Galt’s sphere of influence, which allowed the county to approve the division of large, agricultural properties into 2-acre lots. In 2011, the block of land was removed from Galt’s sphere of influence and became subject to a county general plan rule restricting subdivisions outside of city service boundaries.
The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors early next year will consider tweaking the general plan to allow the Rochas and other property owners to submit applications for 2-acre subdivisions. Each project would still need to go through the proper channels. The Planning Commission passed the amendment on Dec. 12.
Over the years, the county has approved 347 2-acre lots, which amounts to 63 percent of the area that would be included in the general plan amendment.
“Just let me do what all the people who butt up against my dairy do,” George Rocha said. “It’s pretty much an infill project.”
The Rochas moved to Galt in 1961. Their father, John, was a Portuguese immigrant who worked in the dairy business in the Bay Area and “followed the cows” up to Galt, where he bought his own little dairy on the advice of other Portuguese immigrants.
Milk was and still is one of Sacramento County’s main agricultural products – until 1998, it was the county’s largest agricultural commodity. That year, wine grapes surpassed milk, but it remains the second-largest commodity, though the number of small dairies has dwindled.
County Supervisor Don Nottoli, who grew up in Galt and represents the area, said there were at least a dozen dairies in the area around the Rochas’ land in years past.
“Over time it’s been a little bit of a patchwork quilt in the sense that … you could have a large property with livestock operating a dairy and on two sides have small homes,” he said.
The Rocha dairy sits less than a mile from Galt’s boundary. George Rocha said some of his neighbors sold their land and moved farther out from the city to run dairies where land is cheaper. The Rocha brothers don’t want to continue dairy farming elsewhere because they don’t have a profitable business path, he said.
California’s regulatory climate makes it difficult for smaller dairies to make a good profit, county Agricultural Commissioner Juli Jensen said. The state recently enacted a series of air-quality regulations aimed at reducing the methane emissions from cows’ manure that might strain the industry’s finances.
“In order to be successful as a business, you really can’t get by with milking small numbers of cows,” she said. She estimated a dairy needs a minimum of 1,000 cows to be a viable business.
Sacramento dairymen have had different solutions to this problem. Jensen said some small dairies merged with neighboring establishments to create a dairy large enough to be successful. Others have diversified their income by growing grapes or installing a methane digester, which collects the gas and turns it into energy, which farmers can then sell to a power company.
George Rocha said the size of his family’s lot significantly impacts its value. Scott Finn, an independent broker who sells lots and homes in the area, said his clients prefer smaller parcels.
“My clients don’t have designs on being farmers,” he said. “My experience is (5 acres is) just a bit much for most people to want to have to maintain, so the 2 acres is more desirable.”
There are 30 2-acre parcels across the street from the Rocha dairy that were originally owned by the Rochas. Finn said the properties sold within six months.