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

Analytical Method

The idea is to compare the intentions of local jurisdictions, as reflected in the language of their plans, with the facts that illustrate how well those intentions are being fulfilled.

To frame our analysis of local general plans, we asked four basic questions relevant to the future of agricultural land in the Valley. [1]  To answer each question, we looked a number of relevant factors, which are explained below.  Generally, the idea is to compare the intentions of local jurisdictions, as reflected in the language of their plans, with the facts that illustrate how well those intentions are being fulfilled. Commentary is kept to a minimum, so you can draw your own conclusions. We also highlight the most exemplary features of the plans and policies in each county. Ultimately, our purpose is not to be critical, but to encourage improvements in local land use policy that will save the incomparable agricultural resources of the Central Valley.

1. Do local plans and their implementation provide certainty by clearly and consistently (without undue change) indicating where urban development should occur and where agriculture should remain the preferred, long-term land use?

Both farmers and developers want and need certainty so they can go about their business and plan for the future.  Local government land use plans that aren’t clear about where to build and where to farm, or that are frequently changed by amendments, do not provide the necessary certainty.  Uncertainty about whether the land will be earmarked for development discourages investments in agricultural operations and promotes speculation that can drive land prices above what agriculture can afford.  It also breeds community resistance to “surprise” development proposals and, by delaying projects, can increase the cost of housing.

Complicating matters is the fact that most Central Valley counties include, not only at least one large city, but also several smaller ones, as well as a number of unincorporated built-up areas.  This means that there isn't one boundary between urban and rural land uses, but many separate ones in each county. This makes it imperative that every local jurisdiction with planning authority be very clear about where future growth should go and where farmers can count on the land remaining available for agriculture.

Our analysis of this issue includes:

  • The language in county and city general plans that states their intentions with respect to the urban-rural boundary.
  • A map of all the urban development that occurred between 1990 and 2000, which offers perhaps the best evidence of the extent to which development has been confined to urban areas or is scattered throughout rural areas. These maps do not show rural ranchette development on lots larger than 1.5 acres, a major shortcoming that the Department of Conservation intends to remedy. A separate Department map of ranchettes in Stanislaus, Merced, Madera and Fresno is included for those counties.
  • The acreage and proportion of Urban & Built-Up Land outside city "spheres of influence" (which reflect their intentions about where future development should go) is also highly relevant to whether an urban-rural edge is being maintained. Since this is an empirical measurement, the counties can be and are ranked against each other in terms of how much development has taken place outside the cities' growth boundaries. Caveat: The Urban & Built-Up category includes not only residential and commercial development, but also public facilities like landfills, sewage treatment plants, military bases, water control structures and other uses that are typically located of necessity in rural areas. These uses are not necessarily indicative of scattered urban "sprawl," but they do consume agricultural land and can pose conflicts with agriculture.
  • Finally, the analysis includes -- where the information was available -- the frequency of local plan amendments and the acreage of farmland that was thus converted to urban use.

2. Do local plans and their implementation avoid development of high quality farmland in favor of less productive land?

Of the 15.6 million acres of agricultural land in Central Valley, only 5.4 million acres are high quality farmland.  Just 3.2 million acres of this are prime farmland, the best of the best -- the land that produces the highest crop yields at the lowest production cost and with the least impact on the environment (for example, because the need for pesticides and irrigation water is lower).  Development of high quality farmland forces agriculture onto less desirable land, making it less competitive and increasing its environmental impacts.

Already, 700 thousand acres of farmland have been urbanized and, at the present rate of consumption, another 900 thousand or so could be developed by the year 2040. The impact on agriculture will depend, in significant part, on the quality of land urbanized.  Though most Central Valley cities are located on high quality farmland, every county appears to have options for developing less productive land.

Our analysis of this issue includes:

  • The language in county and city general plans that states their intentions with respect to the quality of land to be developed and preserved for agriculture.
  • Acreage of high quality farmland developed 1990-2000 and the proportion of all urban development that consumed this land rather than lower productivity land.
  • Acreage of high quality farmland as a proportion of all land in the county. This provides evidence of the extent to which the local jurisdictions in a county have opportunities to direct growth toward lower productivity land. Not all jurisdictions may have such an option, but again this emphasizes the need for broader planning so that those that do are able to take full advantage of them.
  • A "Land Development Quality Index" that compares the above two data sets, thus providing evidence of how well the local jurisdictions have taken advantage of their opportunities to direct growth to less productive lands. An LDQI of greater than 1.0 indicates that a disproportionate amount of high quality farmland was developed compared with the available options to develop less productive land.
  • Proportion of land within city spheres of influence that is high quality farmland. This is a predictor of the extent to which future development will consume such land.

3. Do local plans and their implementation protect agriculture by limiting or buffering incompatible residential development?

Housing and agriculture do not mix, especially if farming is the type of intensive, industrial crop production found in the Central Valley.  If too many non-farm residences are built in agricultural areas, conflicts inevitably arise over dust, odors, noise, chemical spraying and other “byproducts” of the farm; not to mention vandalism, theft and other retaliatory or thoughtless crimes against agricultural operators.  These can lead to personal injury, liability, higher costs, delays, more regulations and increased stress on growers.  Once houses are built, there is no good way to eliminate these conflicts, though buffer strips of land between residences and farms offer some protection and right-to-farm ordinances may discourage lawsuits over agricultural operations.  Limiting residential uses in agricultural areas remains the best way to safeguard agriculture.

Our analysis of this issue includes:

  • The language in county and city general plans that states their intentions with respect to the development of agricultural land, including both subdivisions and ranchettes.
  • A map of existing ranchettes from 1.5 to 10 acres in size (Stanislaus, Merced, Madera and Fresno Counties only).
  • Acreage developed for ranchettes as of 1996 or 2002 (using the best and most recent data available). Counties are ranked by this measurement.
  • Number of additional ranchettes that could be developed under current zoning in agricultural areas.

4. Do local plans and their implementation promote "smart," efficient development that minimizes farmland conversion while making communities more livable and sustainable?

The population of the Central Valley, now 4.8 million, is expected to more than double to 9.9 million by the year 2040. As the population of the Central Valley grows, more farmland will inevitably be urbanized to accommodate all the new people and their houses, businesses, schools, places to shop and play, and the transportation network to connect it all. Particularly if most growth occurs around cities, much of the land lost to development will be high quality farmland.  This places a premium on developing the land as efficiently as possible in terms of the number of people accommodated for each acre converted to urban use. 

On average, there are currently only 6.4 people per urbanized acre in the roughly 700,000 acres of built-up land of the Valley.  This is very low compared with about 10 people per acre in the Bay Area counties and 20 in coastal Southern California.  As much as one-third more land – an estimated 180,000 acres – is occupied by rural “ranchettes” that consume about ten times more land per person than urban development (while providing very little affordable housing).

Efficient development means reducing the entire urban "footprint." Increasing the average number of homes per acre is only part of the solution, leaving ample opportunity for traditional neighborhood development. A significant proportion of the land in most cities is occupied by commercial, industrial and civic uses, and by the transportation systems that link them all. All of these uses can and should be made more efficient. And the relationship among them needs to be reconsidered. For example, mixed-use development in which houses and stores are intermingled rather than put in separate areas, gives people the option of walking or taking public transit to shops rather than driving. This, in turn, can reduce the number of parking spaces needed for the shops as well as the amount of land devoted to streets.

Our analysis of this issue includes:

  • The language in county and city general plans that states their intentions with respect to the efficiency of development.
  • Average number of people per urbanized acre in 1990 and 2000.
  • Average number of people per acre for the new development that occurred between 1990 and 2000. This measures whether there has been improvement in development efficiency.
  • Size of city spheres of influence (acreage) compared with a projection of how much land will be needed to accommodate population growth by the year 2020.
  • Amount and proportion of land zoned for low density rather than higher density residential development (where data are available).
  • Average vehicle miles travelled per household (VMT/H) per year, a measure of the "connectivity" of urban areas reflecting how well residential and other land uses are integrated so as to provide transportation options other than single-occupant autos. VMT/H is closely correlated with compact, efficient development patterns -- as well as with air quality and traffic congestion.

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[1] We also left out a number of critical issues that we hope to address in future reports. One of them is the availability of water for irrigation, without which there would be no Central Valley agriculture. Every new home and business consumes more water as well as farmland. Today, both urban uses and agriculture use about the same amount of water per acre. But urban users can pay far more than farmers, putting pressure on agricultural water supplies well beyond what consumption rates would suggest. Moreover, if future development uses land more efficiently -- as it must to minimize the loss of farmland -- it may use more water per acre than agriculture, so that urban conversion will be anything but a zero-sum game in terms of its impact on agriculture.

Another important issue for Central Valley agriculture is the extent to which the regulation of farming practices and facilities, e.g., processing plants, puts financial pressure on agriculture that could undermine its economic viability. Ulimately, agriculture is a business as well as a use of land that benefits society. It isn't "farmland" without farmers, and their economic success will ultimately determine the use of the land. Balancing the public need for clean air and water with the ability of farmers to grow our food is obviously one of the most important questions facing policymakers.