MADERA, Calif. — His family had worked the fields west of this broiling Central Valley town for nearly a century. But when Denis Prosperi tried to sell a small piece of his sprawling ranch to a home builder, angry neighbors rose against his plan to bust their expanse of wine vineyards and almond orchards.
"I never dreamed my neighbors wouldn't be ecstatic about the sale, because [it would] increase their land values," Prosperi, 48, said recently, sipping a chilled white wine made from his Muscat grapes. "But they weren't. That's the trouble with farmers, they fall in love with the dirt."
Four years later, Prosperi has found a different way to pay for new irrigation and pest-resistant grapevines for his 640-acre ranch. Instead of selling any of his land, he has joined his critics in a rare compact to save forever some of the best cropland in the most productive farm region in the world.
Prosperi and six of his neighbors last week sold development rights that would have allowed the housing tracts of Madera to extend onto their dusty farmland.
The $4-million deal with the American Farmland Trust is the core of a four-mile-long "farmland security perimeter" on Madera's western flank. It is intended to block urban construction on the protected properties and push another 42,000 acres beyond the reach of city utilities and a municipal planning boundary. That is an eight-mile-square expanse of grapes, alfalfa and dairy land in the heart of the Central Valley protected from development.
The farmland trust, the nation's largest group formed to save agricultural land, believes such easements--walling off premium cropland from cities--are the best hope for preserving farmland.
The trust hopes to slow the advance of builders, who are paving over 50,000 acres of crop and grazing land annually, according to state reports. About one-fifth of that lost farmland is in the fertile Central Valley, where explosive growth is expected to triple the population to 12 million by 2040.
The goal, trust Director John McCaull said, is to use an unprecedented flow of about $150 million in state and federal money over six years to shift growth away from the valley's most fertile land on the alluvial plain west of the Sierra Nevada range.
McCaull figures the money can buy easements on about 50,000 acres of prime farmland and cut off another 500,000 acres from development by pushing growth onto hilly, rocky, salty or poorly drained tracts. That 550,000 acres compares with a total of 6.7 million acres of cropland in the Central Valley.
"If it's done in a strategic manner, I think it could multiply the effect 10 times," he said.
With creation of the Madera preserve, farmers put aside their traditional distrust of government--and of dislike for limits on their property rights--to shape their own destiny. They retained ownership of their farms, but sold away any future right to build housing tracts, stores or office buildings.
The farmland trust describes the Madera deal as the first in the nation where farmers have initiated a farmland "barrier." Elsewhere, farmland trusts have purchased parcels, but not all at once and never at the instigation of farmers acting collectively.
"We believe this is unique," the farmland trust's Greg Kirkpatrick said. "And it wouldn't have come together if farmers ... hadn't really driven the process."
The farmland trust sees the support of farmers and local governments to form the buffers as essential in saving one of the state's largest industries. Crops are worth $30 billion a year, and farm-related businesses employ one of every 10 workers in California. The value of Central Valley crops is greater than those from any other farm region in the world, federal agriculture officials say.
The threat to that industry is clear in Madera County, where the population surged by 40% last decade. With a typical household income of just $31,000 a year, Madera County officials generally have welcomed new industry and upscale housing tracts.
But, at the urging of Prosperi and his neighbors, Madera officials pulled back the city's legal growth boundary and rezoned the land strictly for agriculture.
At stake, the farmers argued, was a way of life. With no replacement industry in sight to support the region, they worried their homesteads would become yet another suburban housing tract. Agricultural analysts also question the wisdom of shrinking the vast tracts that help assure America's food self-sufficiency.
"Madera is a success story," the trust's McCaull said. "We really have a lot of interest in easements [by farmers and governments] up and down the valley, especially in some of the smaller communities that haven't yet gone down the urban path."