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Fresno and Tulare Counties: Will History
Repeat Itself?
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Plans Being Made To Determine Fate of Farmland In the Nation’s Top Two Agricultural Counties

Southern San Joaquin Map

Cities and towns spread over highly
productive farmland - shown in green
[Click on map to enlarge]

The coincidence seems eerily familiar: A large city surrounded by dozens of smaller cities, towns and hamlets, all of them expanding rapidly over fertile farmland in one of the nation’s leading agricultural counties. This description would have fit Los Angeles in mid-20th century – or Fresno and Tulare Counties in the first decade of the twenty-first.  But while the fate of agriculture in L.A. was sealed long ago – or was it quite recently? -- it remains very much up for grabs in what are today the number one and two agricultural counties in the United States.  Whether Fresno and Tulare will go the way of L.A. may depend on the planning processes now going on in both counties.

Fresno and Tulare

As recently as the administration of President John F. Kennedy, Los Angeles County was the nation’s top agricultural producer. Now, Fresno is number one, producing $4.6 billion a year in crops and livestock,
while Tulare is a close second at $4.4 billion annually. Together, if they were a state, it would rank fifth in the nation in agricultural sales, behind only Texas, Iowa, Nebraska and California itself.

An historic postcard from Covina,
now part of the L.A. megalopolis

Agriculture in Jeopardy to Growing Cities

But this incredible agricultural bounty is in jeopardy. The population of both Fresno and Tulare Counties grew about 20 percent in the 1990’s.  Their combined population of 1.1 million is expected to double by 2040. If urban development continues to consume as much farmland per resident as it now does the counties will lose 120,000 acres (188 square miles) of farmland in just over 30 years. And if rural “ranchettes” continue to proliferate in both counties, twice as much land could be removed from agricultural production. (All figures are from AFT’s 2006 report, The Future Is Now: Central Valley Farmland at The Tipping Point.)

Making things even worse is that in Fresno and Tulare there are 60-some cities, unincorporated communities and other urban settlements scattered throughout highly productive cropland on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley. All of these communities want to grow, hoping it will advance economic opportunity for their residents, many of them, especially in the smaller towns, living on the edge of poverty.



Land needed for development by 2040 at current efficiencies (acres)



Undeveloped land planned for growth in city “spheres of influence” (acres)



Whether growth will improve things or make
them worse by increasing public service costs remains to be seen. But the cities seem eager
to make sprawling development as easy as possible by earmarking far more land for
growth than will be needed by 2040. And not
a few cities – which are politically independent
of the County -- are now seeking to expand
their spheres of influence (or development boundaries) even farther. One city that now covers 3 square miles and has a 5-square
mile sphere of influence wants to expand it to
11 square miles!  On top of it all, there is worry
that long before all the farmland between Fresno’s and Tulare’s cities is developed, much of it could be rendered uneconomic to farm because of land use conflicts, land speculation and agricultural disinvestment.  One can almost sense the history of Los Angeles – and of Covina, Azusa, Whittier, Pasadena, Anaheim and San Fernando -- repeating itself.


Tulare General Plan Update

The debate over the future of agriculture and farmland in Fresno and Tulare Counties has never been more intense or momentous than at present.  Tulare County is updating its general plan, which will determine growth patterns through 2025 and almost certainly beyond. Its proposed plan recommends that all 30 of its cities, unincorporated communities and hamlets be allowed to grow, and that the entire county be opened to new town development.  To their credit, Tulare planners want new urban development to be based on a “smart growth” model: compact, mixed-use and transit oriented. But unless they find a way to reduce the amount of farmland consumed by each new resident – Tulare’s current urban density is only about one-third of that of greater Los Angeles – it is hard to see how this wish can be fulfilled.  In formal comments on the draft general plan, AFT highlighted this critical issue and suggested that Tulare County and its cities establish “development efficiency benchmarks” to measure their progress at curbing the unnecessary consumption of farmland by sprawl. 

A Policy Whirlwind in Fresno County

In Fresno County, the future of land use is caught up in a swirling vortex of proposals and policy debates. The Board of Supervisors, openly concerned about the possible merger of cities into a “Greater Fresno Blob,” recently ordered county planners to consider aggressive new ways of protecting farmland and agriculture. The planners have responded by proposing to design a model farmland preservation program.  (AFT has been asked to participate in this exciting initiative.)  Meanwhile, the Fresno Council of Governments is leading a task force that will look at the possibility of creating agriculture buffers between the cities.  At the same time, planners and business leaders have come up with the idea of a multi-modal transportation loop – not necessarily a highway -- around the Fresno metropolitan area that they hope will become the focus for high-intensity future growth that its proponents say will save 500 square miles of farmland compared to sprawling growth of all Fresno’s cities. “While the Metro Rural Loop is an imaginative and well-intentioned concept,” says AFT California Director Edward Thompson, Jr., “it will be a challenge to make it work for agriculture.” (AFT has also accepted an invitation to help evaluate and minimize the agricultural impacts of this undertaking.)

As we grow in the future, what is most important to consider?

Percent listing as top priority

Preserve farmland


Develop inner cities


Reduce vehicle miles traveled


Preserve open space


Conserve resources


In addition to all these debates, both counties
are participating in the San Joaquin Valley
process that is supposed to come up
with an even longer range vision of how the
region should grow and develop. Tulare is just
now starting to hold public meetings on its
blueprint, but Fresno recently concluded its first
round of meetings with a session where local participants were asked to vote on the most important things to consider when planning
future growth.  The encouraging results are
shown in the chart.

Get Involved – Things You Can Do!

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed individuals can change
the world. In fact, it's the only thing that ever has." — Margaret Mead

  • Read AFT’s comments on the draft Tulare County general plan update and send your own ideas and opinions to county planners and the Board of Supervisors
  • Visit the Fresno COG web site and plan to participate in their upcoming public meetings
  • Visit the Tulare and Fresno pages of AFT’s California website and sign up for periodic updates on opportunities to influence the land use debate in these important agricultural counties
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American Farmland Trust