The Future is Now: Central Valley Farmland at the Tipping Point?
Executive Summary
Resumen Ejecutivo
Current Trends
     Population Growth
  Farmland Use and Development
  Quality of Farmland Developed
  Efficiency of Urban Development
  "Ranchettes" & Other Rural Development
  Agricultural Trends
Local Plans & Performance
  Analytical Method
  Sutter County
  Sacramento County
  Yolo County
  San Joaquin County
  Stanislaus County
  Merced County
  Madera County
  Fresno County
  Tulare County
  Kings County
  Kern County
Where is The Valley Heading?
Time for Change
  Ideas for Change
What You Can Do
  Rank Your County
  Local Official Contacts
  Local Organizations
  Support AFT
Methodology & Background Data
About AFT in California


The distinctive Central Valley contains most of California's best farmland. Map courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey.

California's Central Valley [1] is an irreplaceable agricultural resource that is under siege from urban and rural development. It is one of only a handful of areas in the world with a Mediterranean climate in which fruit and vegetable crops flourish. [2] Central Valley farmers take advantage of this climate, as well as fertile soils, developed water supplies and their own ingenuity and hard work, to produce $13 billion worth of food products annually. And they do so on only 6.3 million acres of irrigated cropland, about 5% of the total land area of California. [Click for a technical map of California farmland] In only a century and a half since the Gold Rush, almost 700 thousand acres on the floor of the Valley have been developed for urban use. Almost 100 thousand acres of this were paved over in the 1990's alone. Within just the next generation, close to a million more acres of farmland could vanish, putting additional pressure on the ability of the region's farmers to continue producing food for the state, the nation and the world.

Photo by Ed Williams, CDFAThe rapid loss of agricultural land isn't the only challenge facing the Central Valley. Its economy hasn't grown as fast as the rest of California. Its air quality is now worse than Los Angeles' legendary smog. It has been compared to Appalachia, with too many of its people chronically unemployed, undereducated and suffering poor health. Many leaders believe the key to improving the livability of the Valley is to diversify its economy, so that it isn't as dependent on a single industry: agriculture.

No doubt, that is the direction in which the Central Valley is headed, and probably for the better. But for better or worse, its population will grow dramatically in the coming decades, both from natural increase and immigration. Already, people from the more crowded coastal regions of California are spilling over into the Valley, seeking cheaper housing, even though it means a two-hour plus commute to the Bay Area, the central coast or the Los Angeles Basin.

How Will the Central Valley Grow?

Photo by Ed Williams, CDFAHow the Central Valley grows is its most important challenge of all-- one that will determine whether California remains the world's pre-emminent agricultural producer; and whether the people who live in the Valley, today and into the future, will enjoy a high quality of life. Ten years ago, American Farmland Trust published a report entitled "Alternatives for Future Urban Growth in California's Central Valley: The Bottom Line for Agriculture and Taxpayers." [PDF Read report - 1.4 MB ] It projected growth and land use trends in the Valley to the year 2040 under two different assumptions: first, that the region would grow and develop much as it had in the late 1980's and early 1990s; and second, that things would change so that the development necessary to house the Valley's growing population would be more compact and efficient, consuming less farmland. The difference in the impact on agriculture and the cost of municipal services was eye-opening. The more compact scenario saved more than 500 thousand acres of farmland, $27 billion in agricultural sales (just from the farm gate), and $29 billion in taxpayer dollars that would have to be spent on roads, water and sewer systems, police and fire protection, and other services to sprawling development.

Today, a decade into the future we examined in 1995 — the future really is now — we look back to learn what has happened in the Central Valley. [3] How much farmland has been consumed? How productive was that land? How efficient was urban and rural development? What has it cost agriculture? [4] And, importantly, what role has local government planning played in all this? In short, have things changed so as to avoid the future of "sprawl" that current trends forecast a decade ago? And what can be done to improve the chances of saving the Central Valley's incomparable and irreplaceable agricultural land? To find out, please read on.

[Go to first chapter, Current Trends]

How to Read This Report

This report is divided into "chapters" just as if it were a printed publication. The chapters are listed in the green area to the left of the computer screen. To read the entire report, click the chapter titles from top to bottom. To view individual chapters, or to switch from one to another, simply click the title of the chapter you want to read. Each chapter has subsections, the titles of which are listed at the top and bottom of the screen. To view a specific subsection, click on the title. You can always return to the previous page by clicking the back arrow at the top of the screen. Most tables and graphs can be enlarged for easier viewing by clicking on them. Throughout the text are underlined links to sources that offer further explanation of, or information on,what is being discussed. These can be opened while saving your place in the report by clicking the right button on your mouse.

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[1] The Central Valley includes all or part of 19 counties. For purposes of both this study and its precursor, we looked only at the 11 counties, from Sutter on the north to Kern in the south, that were experiencing significant urban growth in the early 1990s.

[2] The others are found in Chile, South Africa, southwestern Australia and the Mediterranean region itself. Coastal regions of California also enjoy this kind of climate and those that have not been completely paved over, like the Salinas Valley and Oxnard Plain, are also among the most unique and productive agricultural regions in the world. [Read more]

[3] The most comprehensive, accurate population and land use data we now have is for the period from 1990 to 2000. This report will thus examine that decade with an admonition to the reader that the most recent 5-year period has brought additional change to the Central Valley. We intend to update this report as more recent data become available.

[4] Regretably, we were unable to measure the cost to taxpayers of additional public services, ironically because of the high cost of doing so. For general information about the cost of community services as influenced by the development and protection of farmland, see the reports in AFT's Farmland Information Center.