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A Bumper Crop of New Homes

The Inland Empire's vanishing farmland accounts for most of the recent urbanization in the Southland, state study says, but niche crops do find a market.

June 15, 2004|Daryl Kelley and Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writers

The Inland Empire, the state's fastest-growing region for more than a decade, has continued its breakneck conversion of agricultural and vacant land to urban uses, according to a new state study.

Riverside and San Bernardino counties converted 20,000 acres to urban uses from 2000-02 as Southern California continued to fuel the state's population growth, the state Department of Conservation reported Monday.

"The Inland Empire ... is seeing a growth pressure that has been unprecedented based on the demand for housing," said Darryl Young, department director.

San Bernardino County topped the list of lost farmland, with 23,000 acres gone, mostly from the industrial cattleyards known as the Dairylands.

"It's not really a surprise that our farmlands are being converted into homes, because there's no more areas to build homes in Orange and Los Angeles counties," said Rachael Scott, head of the San Bernardino County Farm Bureau. "There's really no choice in this area. There really isn't.... The land is worth a lot more for houses."

But the most unexpected trend in a new report on changes in Southern California land use was the widespread farming of baby carrots, organic onions, potatoes and parsnips in the high-desert Antelope Valley near Lancaster, state officials said Monday.

"It's heartening and interesting to see this uptick in Los Angeles County," said Young. "It's encouraging that high-value specialty crops are being grown close to their market."

From 2000 through 2002, Los Angeles County added nearly 3,600 acres of prime cropland and produced the county's highest level of farming since the state land-use mapping began in 1984, the report said. Before the postwar population boom, the county was the nation's largest producer of farm crops.

The new report on five Southern California counties is one in a series set for release this year as part of the state Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program, which documents land use of 46 million acres of public and private land every two years.

Much like Los Angeles County, small farmers in the Inland Empire are also switching to carrots and other specialty crops to make a living. But that is often only a holding action as growth creeps toward them.

In Riverside County, long an agricultural powerhouse, there has been surprising growth in niche farm products, especially in the Coachella Valley, said Steve Pastor, Riverside Farm Bureau executive director. "Baby carrots are very popular and Oriental vegetables are very popular on a smaller scale too," he said.

Ben Faber, a farm advisor with the UC Cooperative Extension in Ventura, said the move toward specialty farming is wise because of the growing demand for those fruits and vegetables in Southern California.

"If you are in Riverside, if you are in San Bernardino, if you are in Antelope Valley or Ventura County, you are in the right place at the right time as a farmer.... You're close enough to the consumer to deliver fresh produce 12 months a year," he said. "L.A. has a huge mouth and a huge belly, and we are always looking for something new."

The transformation of Riverside and San Bernardino counties from a primarily agricultural region to a sprawling megalopolis is emblematic of the overall change in California since World War II.

Together, those two counties accounted for nearly 22% of all farm and vacant land converted to urban uses during the 1990s. Riverside County alone accounted for 14%.

And the story was the same for 2000-02, except that San Bernardino County surpassed Riverside County in urbanization.

The two counties accounted for 84% of the 43,000 acres of pasture and cropland lost during those two years in the five-county region. San Diego County was not counted because its mapping is not complete.

The Inland Empire also accounted for 78% of the 25,500 acres added to the region's cities. San Bernardino County alone accounted for more than half of the region's lost agricultural land and about half of its urbanization.

From 2000-02, San Bernardino County took more than 23,000 agricultural acres -- mostly pasture -- out of production, compared with about 13,000 in Riverside County, where most of the loss was in prime farmland.

About 3,300 acres of agricultural land was lost in Orange County and about 2,000 in Ventura County.

San Bernardino County added about 12,000 acres to cities, while Riverside added about 8,000, Orange County about 4,600 and Ventura County about 2,600.

Prospects for the future also reflect escalating growth: About 44,000 agricultural acres in Riverside County are slated for development, while jurisdictions in San Bernardino County report the withdrawal of 15,000 acres from agriculture, presumably for development.

Experts said there was one big reason that San Bernardino County tops the list for lost farm acreage: The Dairylands are being lost to new housing developments.

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