Most of the counties and major cities in the Central Valley of California are failing to make significant progress at preserving farmland in the nation's most important agricultural region, according to a new American Farmland Trust (AFT) study.

“Though local land use plans are well-intentioned,” said Edward Thompson Jr., AFT's California director, “the best farmland is being paved over the fastest, and the land is being developed very inefficiently in terms of the amount of land used for each new resident. It's a waste of a precious resource.”

The AFT study, covering 11 counties from Sutter to Kern, found that during the 1990s, 53 percent of the 97,000 acres that were urbanized was high quality farmland, and that for every eight new residents, an entire acre of land was developed. Urban development in the Bay Area is about twice as efficient, and in Southern California, it is almost three times as efficient.

AFT also found that “ranchettes,” rural residences on large lots, may occupy one-third as much land as in the Valley's urbanized area, a far greater percentage than previously thought. Because only a tiny fraction of the population lives on them, “ranchettes” are the most inefficient type of development and do not significantly ease California's shortage of affordable housing.

Yet, this fragmentation poses a serious risk to agriculture, not only because of the potential for conflict with intensive farming operations, but also because it helps to drive the price of farmland above what farmers can afford.

Building trends

Current building trends, the AFT report forecasts, will lead to the loss of another 900,000 acres of farmland, more than doubling today's developed area. By 2040, the loss of agricultural output due to land conversion could top $860 million per year.

Though there is still an opportunity to save a significant amount of farmland, AFT warns that, unless counties and cities encourage more efficient development, the Central Valley will reach a “tipping point” beyond which it will become too difficult to reach that goal. “The political will to change,” said Thompson, “becomes harder every day that the status quo prevails.”

AFT calls upon local officials in the Central Valley to begin at once to find ways to increase the efficiency of future development and guide growth away from the most productive farmland. “It's not simply a matter of putting houses closer together,” said AFT's Thompson. “Sprawling commercial development including shopping and auto malls is a very inefficient use of land, as is the transportation infrastructure needed to serve a widely-scattered population.”

What is needed, AFT concludes, is “smarter” growth that builds upward as much as outward, and that frees people from complete reliance on the automobile. “Our inefficient development patterns are a threat to more than agriculture,” said Thompson. “They are also responsible for the increasing traffic congestion, worsening air pollution and higher public service costs that are plaguing nearly every Central Valley community.”

The AFT study, titled “The Future Is Now: Central Valley Farmland at The Tipping Point?” is available only on the Internet at www.farmland.org. It includes an interactive feature that allows viewers to use their own criteria to rank their counties' performance at preserving farmland.