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Choice for 21st Century: Keep Farming or Build Homes

Central Valley: More than 20,000 acres a year of the nation's most fertile soil are gobbled up by the march of suburbia. Is it inevitable?

November 30, 1996|MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KERMAN, Calif. — To stand in the middle of Joe Boyd's vineyard and gaze through the late harvest haze at the immensity of the Central Valley is to believe that no threat from the city could possibly be imminent.

This is California's epic interior, 400 miles long and 50 miles wide, 7 million acres of lush farms from Bakersfield to Redding. More milk, tomatoes, grapes, almonds, peaches, apricots, figs, pistachios and cantaloupes come off these fields than any other fields in the world.

Only the tumbleweeds at roadside reveal what the whole place would look like without the dams and irrigation canals that harness the great Sierra rivers.

Boyd's 223 acres of table grapes on old salt grassland could not seem more snug. But the old-timer, half a century of harvests under his hat, knows that this is California, and nothing lasts forever. Suburbia is spreading inexorably across the vast Central Valley, nibbling a vineyard here and a peach orchard there, claiming more than 20,000 acres a year of the nation's most fertile soil.

Flags of America's biggest home builders fly everywhere, marking new subdivisions for every kind of buyer: farmers' children who prefer suburban life, commuters to Los Angeles and the Bay Area, whites fleeing older valley neighborhoods with growing minority and poor populations, and retirees who come with enough equity to buy a dream house and still invest in a mutual fund.

A few years ago, at age 78, Boyd planted a vineyard at the edge of Kerman. He regards it today with the delight that one reserves for a creature fine and endangered. "Look at those babies," he gestures with his chin. "Ah, I love the smell of this place. I love to see those bunches hanging."

Boyd understands the impermanence of his young field better than most, for he is also a real estate man who has subdivided more fields than any other farmer on Fresno County's west side. To hear him talk about his beloved Thompson seedless grapes and his beloved custom houses is to be hit with the deep paradox of this place.

It is at once America's richest farm belt and one of America's fastest-growing regions, and it doesn't seem to know that it can't have it both ways for much longer. "I wear two or three hats," Boyd says. "A little real estate, a little lending, a little farming. I like to hedge my bets."

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Planners and state officials are calling the future of the Central Valley--farm belt or endless strip of suburbs along Highway 99--California's 21st century choice.

If the state doesn't find a novel way to manage growth here, they say, it will have major repercussions for a nation that has spent billions transforming the region from desert and marsh into an agricultural colossus providing 25% of America's table food.

"There are no more Central Valleys combining its endless soil and sun, at least not on this side of the U.S.-Mexico border," said Carol Whiteside, the former mayor of Modesto and now director of Gov. Pete Wilson's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. "I can't think of too many decisions facing this state that are more important than finding a way to keep the farm viable."

Already 12% of the original cropland has been paved over. If farm towns such as Kerman, Selma, Madera, Merced, Manteca and Modesto hold true to form, another 2.5 million acres--one-third of the best loam--will be swallowed up over the next four decades.

Some loss is unavoidable as the population, which grew almost a third in the last 10 years, continues to soar. The number of residents is projected to triple to 15 million by 2040.

But much of the growth has been a hopscotch sprawl across the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys, driven by land speculators who snatch up available fields and by city councils and county boards enticed by growth.

In many cities, these new houses and commercial strips far from the center of town cost more in services--sewer, streets, police, fire--than they fetch in property and sales taxes. A few communities have drawn tight boundaries restricting growth, but many other cities continue to grow outward, some as a way to meet the debt from past sprawl.

"Residential development gives you some quick money upfront, but after that it's a big burden," said Mike Amabile, mayor of Los Banos, a cotton and dairy town in Merced County that has doubled over the last decade to 20,000 residents.

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"We're in favor of preserving prime farmland, but we also find ourselves in the dilemma of having to grow to pay off our bond debt."

The valley's paradox reveals itself everywhere. Inner city gangbangers now hang down the road from Future Farmers of America dressing their pigs for fair time. Residents complain about the dust from almond and cotton harvests, while urban smog has helped make this one of the most polluted air basins in the country. The land is so flat and far-reaching that no one element dominates, not the fierce sun or brooding fog.

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