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Keeping Farms Rooted

July 18, 1998

The farmer in the dell, the farmer in the dell. Heigh ho! the derry oh, the farmer in the dell.

Actually, in California today the farmer is in Sacramento, looking comfortable in a business suit, crisp shirt and fashionable tie--and talking of such things as land-use planning and growth management. In the past, those were fighting words in farm country, best muttered under the breath. But times are changing.

Urbanization is eating up California's prime farmland at an alarming pace--120,000 acres in the Central Valley, California's farming heartland, between 1984 and 1994. Current projections say the valley's population will nearly triple to 14 million by the year 2040 and urbanization will cover a million acres more--an area about half the size of Orange County--with solid housing and commercial tracts.

The image of a future "strip city" running up California 99 from Bakersfield to Sacramento has stirred elements of the agriculture industry to seek ways of keeping that from happening. Now, after a year's study, the Agricultural Task Force for Resource Conservation and Economic Growth in the Central Valley has produced a report remarkable for its recognition of the need for government controls and incentives in managing growth in the Central Valley's 18 counties.

This is by no means a surrender to the sort of central planning that farmers have condemned for generations. The proposals definitely are in the farmers' self-interest. But, to a great degree, they also are in the best interests of the entire state of California. A healthy agricultural economy in the valley means quality, reasonably priced food on the tables of urban dwellers throughout Southern California, aside from the fact that it's a $25-billion international business. And the plan would guarantee environmental protection for hundreds of thousands of acres of rural California that should not be allowed to disappear in the manner of the state's wetlands, through population and development pressures.

Task force members make no pretense of representing anyone's interests but their own. One of 10 basic principles in the report calls for assurance of an "adequate and affordable water supply" for agriculture--a tenet that will clash with increasing urban water demands in Southern California and elsewhere.

But the principles also urge actions that state and local governments should have taken long ago. There is, for example, a proposal that each county develop an integrated general plan in conjunction with all the cities within the county, with separate urban and rural elements and buffer zones between to soften the conflicts that arise when a housing tract pops up next to a farm field.

Cities should concentrate on growth within existing boundaries rather than spreading into rural areas. The state should improve incentives for owners to keep farming rather than yield to the temptations of developers' checkbooks. The task force offers its document as the basis for a discussion with developers, environmentalists and others. It is a critically important discussion that should begin now--in the dell, in the cities and in the halls of government.


Pressure on Farmland

California's top five agricultural counties, in terms of the annual value of agricultural products, face increasing pressure from population growth.


Current Projected County population in 2040 Fresno 776,200 2,497,700 Tulare 355,500 952,100 Kern 628,200 1,954,800 Merced 201,000 626,900 San Joaquin 535,400 1,356,500


Source: California Dept. of Finance, Dept. of Agriculture

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