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

Ideas for Change

The destruction of another 900,000 acres of Central Valley farmland is not inevitable. Neither are its implications, from a potentially crippling loss of agricultural capacity to more traffic congestion and air pollution, and a degraded environment in general. There is a window of opportunity remaining for the Valley to fulfill its unique potential as a diverse mix of cultivated, natural and built environments, rather than as just another California region characterized by undistinguished and costly urban sprawl. But, as we have seen, the time to bring about meaningful change -- is now.

Potential Farmland Savings from Immediate Action

If public officials and other community leaders begin immediately to change the land use plans, policies, rules and incentives that shape development, a significant amount of farmland can be saved. The chart at the right [click on it to enlarge] shows what can be accomplished if action is taken in the near future to increase the efficiency of development in the Valley.

If land use patterns in the Valley do not change, the combination of urban and rural ranchette development will consume another 900,000 acres. A relatively modest increase in the efficiency of urban development — taking the Easy Path — would save 238,000 acres of farmland (red area on chart), 42% of what will be lost by the year 2040 if curent trends are allowed to continue. During the next decade, the number of people accommodated per urbanized acre would have to increase from an average of 8 to less than 12 people per acre, and reach about 17 people per acre by 2025 -- less than the average in coastal Southern California today. An additional savings of about 204,000 acres (orange area on chart) could be achieved by reducing the size of new rural ranchettes from an average of 4 to 1.75 acres (or by reducing their number by two-thirds). The total loss of farmland would be cut in half, saving around 440,000 acres. If 70% of the land saved were high quality irrigated cropland and the remainder rangeland and less productive land -- for saving the best land is and eqully critical objective -- it would also save roughly $550 million (in 2002 dollars) in annual agricultural production capacity.

How to Do It

To minimize the loss of the Valley's best farmland, many challenges must be met. And there is no one-size-fits-all policy prescription.  It will take some experimentation to find effective solutions for each community. Nonetheless, there are some common challenges each community should try to better understand and some universal solutions that they could apply as appropriate to local circumstances. [1]

Uncertain Boundaries Between Urban and Agricultural Land Uses

Potential Solutions

In many communities, farmland is viewed simply as open space waiting to be developed, and agriculture as a temporary use of it, rather than as an irreplaceable resource for an essential industry that requires long-term stability to prosper.  Many city spheres of influence are much larger than required to accommodate future population growth, and their boundaries can be changed almost at any time, as can both city and county general plan designations of land for development.  These uncertainties contribute to what has been called an “impermanence syndrome” that encourages land speculation (driving land prices above what agriculture can afford) and discourages long-term commitments of land to agricultural use (like Williamson Act contracts). 

Under the circumstances, one cannot blame farmers for wanting to keep all their land use options open. But this desire merely helps perpetuate the cycle of uncertainty that could ultimately undermine the agriculture industry itself.  The uncertainty also affects developers (at least those who are not betting that they can get the rules changed in their favor). Neighbors who are surprised by changes in rules to accommodate a development project are more likely to oppose them politically and in court.

The best way to cure uncertainty is probably to make the dividing line between where growth is to occur and where agriculture should remain more certain, both geographically and over time. Urban growth boundaries or urban limit lines have been adopted by a number of Valley communities, including Tulare County (for its unincorporated communities) and the Cities of Davis and Yuba City.  On the edge of the City of Madera, and with its official sanction, AFT negotiated with eight farmland owners to purchase conservation easements permanently restricting development of their property, thus creating a de facto growth boundary.

Greater certainty could also be provided by the adoption of limitations on the frequency of general plan amendments, and tighter rules for expansion of special districts providing services like water and sewer to new development.  Riverside County has a self-imposed rule limiting general plan amendments to once every 10 years. Stronger LAFCo policies could also be an avenue for achieving this objective.

The state Business, Transportation and Housing Agency has proposed that local jurisdictions designate enough land to accommodate a 20-year housing supply.  If this means local plans and zoning are changed less often, it could contribute to greater certainty for agriculture and developers.  But unless the amount of land earmarked for housing in the Valley is based on the assumption that it will use land far more efficiently than at present, the only certainty could be more urban sprawl.

Some uncertainty is a given in agriculture.  But it could be better managed, if there were a clear vision of the future of agriculture.  A growing phenomenon around the county is “planning for agriculture,” a joint private-public sector exercise that explicitly considers the future needs of agriculture, the opportunities and challenges that will shape it, and develops a consensus vision or, and strategies for, success. Such planning encompasses land use and environmental issues, but focuses on economic viability.  San Diego County is now going through this process in partnership with AFT and the local Farm Bureau.

Too Much Development of
High Quality Farmland

Potential Solutions


All other things being equal, the farmland with the most fertile soils, most reliable water supplies and fewest environmental challenges (e.g., hard pan or saline soils) will produce the most food at the least cost.  High quality farmland (prime, unique or of statewide importance) is being disproportionately developed, mainly because the Valley’s growing cities are located in the midst of this land, as one would expect of towns that began as, and largely remain, farm centers.  Developing this land efficiently (below) is an imperative.  But, as maps of farmland quality show, in most Valley counties there are also options for development of less productive or important farmland.

Also contributing to the disproportionate development of high quality farmland are rural zoning schemes that permit more “ranchette” dwellings to be built on a comparable amount of high quality farmland than on less productive land.  For example, 20-acre lots might be required on better land, while 80 or 160 acres are required on less fertile cropland and grazing land.  These schemes appear to have been designed to accommodate agriculture, reflecting the fact that farmers generally can (or could) make just as good a living on small farms with highly productive soils as on larger farms that aren’t as well endowed.  But it is very counterproductive to preserving the best farmland.

Reconsider rural plans and zoning schemes to separate “ranchette” development potential from parcel size. One option, increasingly popular in the eastern U.S., is to replace large lot sizes with a density-based allocation of ranchette dwellings that, for example, would allow one unit per 40 acres – or whatever would sufficiently protect agriculture from conflicts – regardless of land quality, but require that lots be a maximum of only 2 or 3 acres.

Carefully consider options for the direction in which existing communities grow.  As the map shows, there is less productive farmland somewhere near most Valley communities.  Another option may be building new towns on less productive land in the low foothills on the edges of the Valley.  Some of this land is important habitat for endangered species and other wildlife, and providing water and public services could be a challenge.  But it is such an intuitively attractive alternative, that it should be given more attention than it has in the past.


Inefficient Development of

Potential Solutions

Given the rapid and inexorable growth of the Valley’s population, the single most critical challenge facing those who want to preserve farmland and agriculture is the extremely inefficient use of land by new development.  In the Valley, development of all types (residential, commercial and civic) together consume 50% more land per person than in the Bay Area and twice as much as in Southern California.  Though there has been some improvement in the past decade – 8.1 people per urban acre v. the historic 6.4 – the current trend is not sufficient to head off the loss of another 570,000 acres of farmland in the coming generation. Inefficient urban development, which tends to be spread out, not only wastes farmland, it also contributes to many of the Valley’s other pressing problems like traffic congestion, poor air quality and inability to afford quality public services.

Perhaps the first thing for Valley communities to consider is the establishment of measurable development efficiency objectives or targets.  Only with a clear awareness of this issue and a meaningful effort to track progress is efficiency likely to increase.  Development efficiency standards should apply to the entire urban “footprint,” not just residential areas.  Otherwise, gains achieved by more efficient housing could be squandered by inefficient commercial development. To save a significant amount of farmland, targets must be significantly higher than the current trend, but they could start out modestly and increase over time to enable markets to adjust (as our Easy Path scenario suggests).

City spheres of influence should be re-examined to determine if they really need to be as big as they now are.   Spheres that are too large may encourage inefficient use in the same way that an excess of anything tends to cause waste and over-consumption.  In some communities, spheres exceed 6 times the amount of land that will be needed to accommodate growth for the next 20 years, even under the most conservative assumptions. A “cushion” of developable land needs to be provided so that real estate prices do not soar, and that the boundaries don’t have to be changed too often.

The City of Visalia has adopted concentric spheres of influence that constrain development based on anticipated population growth rather than on a timetable.  The inner sphere must be almost completely built-out before development may occur in the outer one. This is the functional equivalent of setting an efficiency standard using per capita land consumption, though we do not have data to determine whether the standard represents an improvement over the current trend.

One way to implement development efficiency standards would be with mitigation fees that are graduated on a sliding scale.  The amount that would have to be paid by developers converting farmland would be greater if housing or commercial facilities use more land per person or job, and less if they use the land more efficiently. (They could at the same time be graduated based on the quality of farmland developed.) The justification for this approach is that every acre developed at low intensity represents an opportunity cost to the community in terms of the additional acres of farmland that will have to be converted to satisfy the demand for growth. Fees should be invested (as they now are by communities like Davis, Lathrop, Manteca and Tracy) in conservation easements to preserve farmland.

Perhaps the best way to increase the efficiency of development – with all its public benefits: less traffic congestion, better air quality, more open space, lower taxes – is to revitalize and rebuild urban communities.  “Infill” development accommodates growth without consuming any more farmland.  A comprehensive inventory of infill sites has recently been released by the University of California at Berkeley.  Though infill faces some obstacles and cannot satisfy all housing and other development needs, a lot more could be done to encourage it.  “Growing up, not out” is the ultimate solution to farmland loss as well as many other challenges facing the Central Valley.

Innovative design is one key to successful urban revitalization. Click here to see an interactive example of how urban planners envision the transformation of communities.

Scattered Rural “Ranchette” Development

Potential Solutions

Vast areas of the Central Valley are planned and zoned to allow single-family dwellings on large and very large lots.  The intent may have been to accommodate small farms, but parcels upwards of 20 acres are now commonly being sold as building lots for those who want a rural lifestyle without actually farming for a living.  “Ranchettes” are the most inefficient kind of residential development, housing very few people on a large amount of land.  They also pose an enormous risk to production agriculture from land use conflicts, liability and expense.  Finally, they appear to be a major factor driving land price inflation, which threatens to make farmland too expensive for those whose livelihood depends on agriculture. For all these reasons, it may be the biggest short-term land use threat to Central Valley agriculture.

The first step to getting “ranchette” development under control is to take inventory of exactly what is out there and what the potential is for more to be built, given existing zoning and actual land parcelization patterns.  Goals could include reducing the number of “ranchettes,” reducing their size – not as desirable from the standpoint of avoiding conflicts with agriculture – concentrating them in specific areas where they will pose the least risk to agriculture, or all the above.  Moving them off the Valley floor into foothill areas is only a partial solution because scattered “ranchettes” there could pose risks for wildlife, wild fire and equally high public service costs.

There are many promising ways of controlling “ranchette” development.  Preventing subdivision of existing agricultural parcels is an effective way of limiting further damage, but not of dealing with the many large lots already in existence.

Some communities deliberately zone specific areas for “ranchettes” on the premise that this will attract them away from more intensive agricultural areas, but it isn’t clear how well this is working.

Rules designed to minimize the many problems “ranchettes” create can be used to discourage them, as Sutter County now does with development standards related to road frontage, lot width-to-depth ratio, distance from public services and other factors.

Instead of large lots, density-based zoning schemes (discussed above) could be used to reduce “ranchette” sizes.  Authorizing the transfer of development credits from parcel to parcel could help concentrate them in specific areas to reduce problems for production agriculture.  Buffer zones, plantings and other landscape features can be used to further reduce potential conflicts with working farms and ranches.

Challenge: Insufficient Land Use Coordination Among Local Communities

Potential Solutions

There are so many local jurisdictions in the Valley – counties, big and small cities, unincorporated communities –that it tends to obscure the cumulative impact of their individual land use decisions on an agricultural economy and resource base that transcend political boundaries.  Almost every community faces the pressure to grow, whether or not it wants to, and their growth is affected, for better or worse, by the decisions of neighboring jurisdictions.  LAFCos and Councils of Government provide some coordination, but do not appear to offer the kind of broader perspective on growth that would make apparent the true impact of local decision making on Central Valley agriculture or, indeed, on farming within individual counties.

There are some good examples of inter-jurisdictional cooperation and coordination in the Valley, among them city-county agreements on growth in Yolo, Tulare and Kern Counties.  This doesn’t necessarily result in more efficient development that avoids high quality farmland, but it is a start.

Local collaborations among both public and private institutions may present a better opportunity to preserve farmland while improving communities at large.  One such collaboration was the Fresno Growth Alternatives Alliance formed by the local Farm Bureau, Chamber of Commerce, Business Council, Building Industry Association and American Farmland Trust, which led to growth strategies called Landscape of Choice that have since served as a guide for regional planning within the county.

In the Sacramento metropolitan region, the process of regional cooperation is already well underway through the Blueprint Project conducted by the regional Council of Governments. This much heralded collaboration appears to be succeeding in bringing local governments together around an understanding that the future quality of life depends on regional cooperation, a common vision of the future and a shared commitment to implement the regional blueprint they collectively devised.

Similar hope for the eight San Joaquin Valley counties is offered by two efforts at regional planning that have recently begun there. The California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, chartered by Governor Schwarzenegger in late 2004 and led by members of his cabinet, local elected officials and prominent private sector leaders from the Valley, is a broad gauged effort to address the many challenges facing the eight-county region from San Joaquin to Kern. Among those issues is everything from education and unemployment to air pollution and growth management. One of the several committees established by the Partnership is one that will specifically address land use, housing and agriculture as related issues. Facilitated by the Great Valley Center, and taking advantage of the resources of the University of California, this committee intends to model future growth scenarios in order to make the options and their implications clear to the Valley’s leaders and residents. The end product will be a visionary “blueprint” to provide a broader perspective on growth that will be of significant value as a guide to local land use decision making, enabling it to be more responsive to the regional context and to better manage the cumulative impacts on farmland and other indicators of the quality of life.  Together with a parallel effort by the eight San Joaquin Valley Councils of Government (one representing each county) to update and mesh their transportation and land use plans, this could be the best opportunity in decades to develop a regional vision and strategies for managing growth and preserving farmland.

Challenge: State Policy Obstacles
to Better Local Land Use
Decision Making

Potential Solutions

Though responsibility for land use decisionmaking clearly rests with local government, state law and policies have a powerful influence on it.  Three issues stand out as obstacles to better local land use decisions in the Central Valley as well as throughout the state.

Proposition 13 and other state-mandated limitations on the ability of local government to raise money to finance its services and operations has led to the “fiscalization” of land use. Financially strapped cities and counties will do just about anything to attract new development (e.g., auto malls and big-box retailers) that will bring in sales tax revenue.  Localities “race to the bottom” to compete and have a hard time resisting the plans of developers – whether or not consistent with established general plans – who threaten to take their projects elsewhere.

Under state law, school districts are not required to comply with city or county land use plans, but are free to locate their facilities wherever they want.  Because new schools are a magnet for residential development, they can be a major driver of urban sprawl if located outside of, or on the edge of, cities.  Conversely, if schools in existing urban neighborhoods are not revitalized, it acts as a deterrent to urban infill development.

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), requiring review of major development projects, can be a deterrent to urban infill and other kinds of efficient development.  This is particularly true where local land use plans are frequently changed, leading surprised neighbors and other citizens to invoke CEQA to legally oppose projects that could actually be good for both farmland and the community at large.  CEQA’s mitigation requirements, though seldom invoked to preserve farmland, can pose an obstacle to intensive urban redevelopment that requires expensive infrastructure upgrades.

Short of amending Proposition 13, there are other solutions to ameliorating counterproductive competition among local governments.  City-county agreements that share tax revenue while directing growth to urban areas exist in a number of Valley jurisdictions.  Municipal finance could be made easier by changing the requirement for local passage of revenue measures from 2/3 to a simple majority.

School location decisions should be subject to local government land use authority, period.  They are too important to be beyond general purpose governmental review.  A consortium called the City County Schools Partnership is now trying to come up with solutions short of changing state law.Meanwhile, effective implementation of AB 857 as it applies to state school construction funding could help.  This law, passed in 2003, sets three state planning priorities: urban infill, efficient development and preservation of important farmland and habitat.  It requires all state agencies to assure compliance.

A task force convened by the Schwarzenegger Administration has been studying improvements to CEQA that could streamline approval of urban infill and other highly efficient development, while still protecting the environment and existing urban neighborhoods.  Among the ideas discussed are short form environmental impact reports and tiering of review so that impacts considered at the general or specific local plan level need not be reconsidered at the project level.


[1] AFT isn't the only institution that has suggested strategies for saving farmland and promoting smarter growth in the Central Valley. In 1996, shortly after the publication of AFT's report Alternatives for Future Urban Growth, an Agricultural Task Force from the Valley made recommendations that are equally applicable today — sadly because not much has changed. Read the Task Force report and recommendations by clicking here.

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