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

Current Trends in the Central Valley

Ranchettes & Other Development Outside City Spheres of Influence

Ranchettes are residences built on large lots (1.5 acres and up), generally in rural areas. Some agriculture may be taking place on them — a few fruit trees, perhaps some horses — but it is seldom for commercial purposes. They provide an attractive rural lifestyle for some. But because they remove more land from agriculture per person than any other kind of development, and because the presence of non-farming neighbors poses economic and legal risks and challenges for the commercial producers around them, they are of great concern to agriculture in the Central Valley. (Read about right-to-farm issues)

Consistent, up-to-date statistics on ranchette development in the Valley are not as readily available as for urban development. The most recent study of ranchettes covering the entire area that is the focus of this report was done by American Farmland Trust in 2000, relying on data from 1996. [1] The state Farmland Mapping & Monitoring Program (FMMP) has only recently begun to track residential development on lots between 1.5 and 10 acres. A FMMP pilot project in four Valley counties (Stanislaus, Merced, Madera and Fresno) found that in 2002 there were 73,600 acres devoted to ranchettes.

Rural Ranchette Development 2000
  Data shown in Green are from Farmland Mapping & Monitoring Program 2002 study. Those in blue and orange are from AFT 1996 ranchette study.

Combining the data from these studies, using the more recent FMMP data for the above four counties and AFT data for the others, it appears that there are about 127,000 acres of ranchette development on lots from 1.5 to 10 acres in size, and another 51,000 acres developed on lots from 10 to 20 acres. AFT also found that there were another 320,000 acres in undeveloped rural parcels classified by local tax assessors as residential rather than agricultural, which could represent potential — or, ten years later, actual — ranchettes.

The acreage of developed ranchettes smaller than 10 acres represents 19% of the combined area of the urbanized land in the Valley. This rises to 27%, if ranchettes from 10 to 20 acres are included. (If only the FMMP mapped ranchettes are included, their area is one-third of the urbanized land in those four counties.) What this suggests is that in the Valley about one-quarter of all the land removed from agriculture by urban and rural residential uses has not been documented until recently.

Not all ranchette development in Central Valley counties is located on high quality farmland on the Valley floor where it would pose the most serious risk to agriculture. The data on which AFT's 2000 study relied did not allow the location of ranchettes to be determined more precisely than by county. The 2002 FMMP pilot study did map the ranchettes, which are shown in red on the portion of the Valley illustrated here. (Click here or on the map to view the entire four-county region PDF) Though that study did not quantify how many ranchette parcels or acres are on the Valley floor (roughly corresponding to the green areas on the map), it certainly appears that a substantial proportion of the ranchettes are, indeed, located there, where they pose the greatest risk to commercial agricultural production. [2]

Development Outside City Spheres of Influence

Proportion of Development Outside
City Spheres of Influence

In addition to ranchettes, a significant proportion of urban development in the Central Valley is located outside city "spheres of influence." Spheres of influence are legally-designated areas around cities into which they intend to expand. As a rule, development within the spheres is preferable to development outside them because it is less costly to serve with roads, sewers and the like. If the spheres are not too large, and development is contained within them, it also contributes to stability in the land market, which is important to agriculture.

We do not have data to calculate how much development during the 1990s occurred outside city spheres of influence. But as of 2000, about 26 percent of all the Urban & Built Up Land in the Valley was outside city spheres of influence. Some of this does not consist of typical urban uses, but includes facilities like prisons, military bases and landfills. With that caveat, however, it is fair to conclude that, along with ranchettes, urban development beyond the areas where cities intend to expand is one of the factors that has an influence on the price of land, which affects its affordability to agriculture.

Photo by Ed Williams, CDFA

Land Price Inflation:
A Present Danger for Agriculture

The impact of ranchettes and development outside spheres of influence on Central Valley agriculture is not limited to taking land out of production and posing the risk of economic and legal conflicts with commercial agriculture. Another concern is the impact that the market for rural development is apparently having on agricultural land prices. According to the 2005 report of the California chapter of the American Society of Farm Managers & Rural Appraisers, Trends in Agricultural Land and Lease Values, in many parts of the Central Valley land prices are being driven above and beyond what commercial growers can afford. Though the report does not contain a systematic analysis of ranchette values, it contains many anecdotal reports from appraisers. Some examples:

"Significant increases in value were observed for smaller parcels with rural homesite appeal, in many cases, above the [agricultural] range stated in this report." Lodi region, San Joaquin County.

"Other influences present were for rural homesites and/or the ability to subdivide the property into small units (i.e., 20 acre parcels)." Modesto & Turlock Irrigation District region, Stanislaus County

"Small acreage parcels, i.e., less than 40 acres, showed even stronger increases [in value]. These smaller parcels are sought after for use a rural residential homesites or weekend hobby farms. Small farm parcels around cities have shown large increases in sales prices over 2004. Ongoing [urban] home price increases have pushed many buyers to look for alternatives. In many cases, the price of a 20-acre parcel in the country was less than the cost of a city lot." Fresno County

It may take time before the actual conversion of farmland takes a serious toll on agricultural production in the Central Valley. But land price inflation caused by the demand for and, ultimately, the permissibility of, ranchettes and other rural development seem to represent a present danger that is undermining the economic viability of agriculture. This is definitely an issue that deserves more study.

[Go to next section, Agricultural Trends]


[1] T. Dunbar, Ranchettes: The Subtle Sprawl - A Study of Rural Residential Development in California's Central Valley, American Farmland Trust, 2000.

[2] For purposes of projecting the impact of ranchettes on Valley farmland, this study assumes that half of the developed acreage will be on the Valley floor, which we consider a realistic, conservative assumption.

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