California Forum

Viewpoints: Conserving farmland will guarantee future Thanksgivings

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.

• Avoid developing the best farmland. This seems self-evident, yet it is easier said than done because most cities in California’s agricultural areas are surrounded by fertile land. The Sacramento region is an exception with less agriculturally productive foothills to the east. Still, proposals to develop prime farmland continue to be made, most recently by Elk Grove in an attempt to annex 8,000 acres to the south. The Sacramento Local Agency Formation Commission made the right decision in denying this request.


Develop land more efficiently.

When farmland has to be sacrificed for urban uses, we need to develop it as efficiently as possible, getting a high yield of people, jobs and dollars of economic activity from every acre. This begins with urban infill that redevelops vacant and underused land within city limits. The transformation of West Sacramento and the mixed-use development proposed around the planned Kings downtown arena are excellent examples. To encourage more of this, we need to address obstacles to infill like excessive impact fees and inappropriate environmental review. On the other hand, we need to scrutinize even more closely “greenfield” development projects like Cordova Hills, which is inconsistent with the Blueprint adopted by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments.


Stabilize the urban edge.

A major contributor to urban sprawl is the lack of reasonable limits on the outward expansion of cities. Like Elk Grove, many cities propose “spheres of influence” – the area officially earmarked for development – that are much larger than needed to accommodate growth. The result is land price inflation, speculation and disinvestment in agriculture around the urban edge. LAFCOs need to “right-size” city spheres, as was recently done in Kings County.


Discourage ranchettes.

Rural residences on lots ranging from 2 to 20 acres or more are the most inefficient and disruptive use of agricultural land. And they keep popping up, seemingly at random, on both cropland and range land throughout California. Stricter subdivision and setback rules, such as those in Sutter County, can significantly curtail ranchettes and protect farms from unsympathetic neighbors.

• Invest in permanent farmland conservation. While discouraging sprawl, we also need to push back by permanently protecting farmland from development. The most popular and effective way to do this is to purchase conservation easements from willing sellers, thus imposing a deed restriction on non-agricultural uses.

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.