For farmers trying to survive in today’s ruinous economy it must seem like they have the cards stacked against them.

Given the reality that over 540 family farms nationwide sought Chapter 12 bankruptcy protection in 2009, a 58 percent increase from 2008, it must be a key concern to California farmers that they too could fall victim to financial ruin. Combine that with a state drought that has limited water-use allocations, more government regulations to jump through, and widening endangered species laws to follow, the picture becomes darker.

Now, on the heels of all these other farming headaches, comes the fact that the first county on record – Imperial County – has decided to opt out of the Williamson Act, an important piece of legislation that protects farmland. Will this lead to other California counties cancelling their contracts, as agricultural experts have long feared?

The Williamson Act offers agricultural landowners a reduction on property taxes if they promise to keep their land in crop production, or at least avoid urban development. Agricultural landowners sign a 10-year contract making that promise. The contracts are automatically renewed each year, so the 10-year commitment continues as long as the property owner doesn’t cancel the agreement.

Counties administer the Williamson Act program. California guarantees the program by reimbursing counties the money they would lose from the reduced property tax revenue.

With the current state budget crisis, the state suspended its “subvention” program last year and did not reimburse counties for the money they lost from the property tax breaks for Williamson Act contract holders. A number of counties absorbed the loss. California is considering the same thing this year. With the state’s deficit projected at $20 billion over the next two fiscal years, it seems likely that state officials will again decide not to reimburse counties for the lost property-tax revenue.

In fiscal year 2007-2008, local governments received roughly $38 million under the Williamson contracts, according the California Department of Conservation. Since fiscal year 1972-1973, when the first payments were made, the state has distributed around $839 million to counties and cities in support of the Williamson Act and other enforceable open space restriction programs. In the current economy, the funding has been knocked dead in its tracks.

And this fact has caused financially hard pressed counties to re-evaluate Williamson Act funding. Fresno County – the top ag producing county in the nation – has already said it might not continue with the Williamson Act program if state help doesn’t soon return. As mentioned, the Board of Supervisors in Imperial County jumped ship recently by cancelling the land-conservation program when contract renewal comes due next Jan. 1.

It seems supervisors believe that since Imperial Valley is so rural and lacking the urban sprawl of large cities, that the Williamson Act is unnecessary there. That may be true for the time being. But we all have seen local government planning agencies allow developments in rural areas so residents can enjoy “country living.” Those new residents than turn around and apply pressure on growers based on their uninformed and unrealistic expectations of how growers can manage growing their crops next to these new residential neighborhoods or industrial-type developments.

To place the urbanization threat in context, I’ll outline some stark observations noted in “Paving Paradise: A New Perspective of California Farmland Conversion,” a report released two years ago by the American Farmland Trust. The study pointed out that about one-sixth of land developed since the Gold Rush was lost between 1990 and 2004. That amounts to about a half-million acres, nearly two-thirds of which was agricultural land. Most troubling is that of all the land converted in California, 28 percent was the state’s best farmland – irrigated cropland that is prime, unique and integral for California’s agricultural output.

The report also notes that during that same period, 1990 to 2004, more than 60 percent of the land developed in the San Joaquin Valley, which accounts for more than half of the state’s overall ag production, consisted of high-quality farmland. In five of the state’s eight counties in the Valley, 70 percent of the development took place on prime farmland. The AFT research warns that unless a different approach to land-use planning and development is adopted, another 2 million acres of California farmland could disappear by 2050.

Viewed in this context, the importance of the Williamson Act is obvious. Without it, California’s fertile cropland will be sold to the highest bidder. This undoubtedly translates into multi-family dwellings, shopping malls, traffic and parking lots. This should scare the beejeebies out of environmentalists as urban sprawl escalates out of control while overpopulation, air and water pollution supplant green fields once adorned in row crops and orchards. (I feel forced to interject here that Detroit is seriously contemplating turning large swaths of the blighted, rusted- out city into the fields and farmland that existed before the automobile.)

It is vital that the Williamson Act continue to help protect our rural environment. Tough budget times call for wise decisions by our elected leaders. It would be unwise to eliminate a highly successful program like the Williamson Act that means so much to farmers in so many counties. Let’s hope that local governments do not follow the example set by Imperial County.

• Update on pesticides/Clean Water Act

As I mentioned in this space in February, the U.S. Supreme Court was expected to hear a case dealing with the Clean Water Act and pesticide applications. Well the verdict is in and it wasn’t favorable to agriculture. The high court was asked to review a year-old appellate ruling that requires farmers to obtain Clean Water Act approval when applying pesticides already permitted under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, or FIFRA.

The Supreme Court declined to consider the challenge to a lower court ruling that farm groups say will result in additional layers of pesticide regulation, without really helping to improve the environment. Farm groups are examining the possibility of asking Congress to clarify that lawful pesticide applications are regulated under pesticide laws and not the Clean Water Act.