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

Executive Summary

The Central Valley's Best Farmland

California Future is New Prune Blossoms
Photo by Gordon Cinnamond
Courtesy of the Great Valley Center

Is Being Developed Very Fast and Inefficiently

California's Central Valley [1] is an irreplaceable agricultural resource that is under siege from urban and rural development. During the 1990's, the period that this study examines, the Valley's population grew by 784,000, a 20 percent increase. [Click here for Data Table] Urban development claimed 97,000 acres of farmland. A disproportionate amount of the land developed, over 70% in many counties (53% on average), was the region's highest quality farmland. And it was developed very inefficiently, consuming an acre of farmland for every 8 new residents, an astonishingly low figure considering the quality of the land paved over.

The distinctive Central Valley contains most of California's best farmland.
California Future is Now California image

Map courtesy of U.S.
Geological Survey

Though new subdivisions and commercial development were concentrated largely on the edges of existing cities [Click here for interactive maps], rural ranchettes also proliferated and now appear to occupy one-third again as much land as urban development [Click here for map of ranchettes]. Driven by speculation, farmland prices in many areas of the Valley are now more than commercial agriculture can afford. Though the value of agricultural production (adjusted for inflation) increased about 20% during the decade, much of this was due to an increase in harvested (as opposed to fallow) acreage and to the expansion of concentrated dairy operations. And about $100 million in annual agricultural production capacity was permanently lost because of the development of farmland.

Looking Back, Looking Forward:
Another 900,000 Acres of Farmland at Risk

In 1995, AFT issued a report Alternatives for Future Urban Growth that called attention to the need for more efficient development in the Central Valley. At that time, we projected that current trends would lead to the loss of a million acres of farmland by the year 2040. (For perspective, the region now has about 800,000 developed acres and 6.3 million acres of irrigated cropland.) Adjusted for a subsequent revision in the official population forecast, we now project that, if current trends continue,upwards of 880,000 acres will be developed for urban uses and ranchettes in the same time period. In short, little progress has been made in the past decade at curbing sprawl.[2]

California Future is Now filler Local Policies Are Well-Intentioned
But Not Very Effective

There are many reasons for the perpetuation of sprawl-as-usual in the Central Valley. Rapid population growth is the driving force, but state and local policies exert a powerful influence on the market and largely determine the direction and type of development. Though the state bears a share of the responsibility for inefficient development patterns that are consuming the Valley's best farmland, it is local policy, especially land use plans and their implementation, that seem to have the greatest impact. And although our analysis shows that the general plans of the Valley's counties and major cities are all well-intentioned -- promising to avoid development of the best farmland and to grow more efficiently -- their intentions for the most part have not been fulfilled.

California Future is Now Central Valley Data Matrix
[Click chart to see Tipping Point]

Time Is Running Out: Central Valley Farmland at the Tipping Point?

And the time for effective change -- not only to save the Valley's world-class farmland, but also to solve traffic and air pollution problems, and keep public service costs and taxes low -- is quickly running out. Indeed, if local officials delay even 10 years before increasing the efficiency of development, it may become impossible to prevent the worst case scenario from happening. That's because every day of delay, and every new sprawling subdivision or commercial development approved, means that future development will have to be even more efficient to make up for it -- until the curve of needed improvement becomes politically and practically too steep. The Valley will have reached the point of no return -- the "tipping point." To avoid that result, Valley officials and communities must understand that the future is now.

Hope for the Future

California Future is Now Yolo Sunflowers
Photo courtesy of Yolo County

The Central Valley may also be on the cusp of another kind of tipping point, where the forces for change reach a critical level that makes long-delayed action not only possible, but very likely. Last fall, Governor Schwarzenegger commissioned a task force called the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley to address the economic, environmental and social problems confronting the region, among them land use. More recently, the eight councils of government in the San Joaquin Valley joined forces to develop a "blueprint" for smarter growth in the region with a grant from the state Business, Transportation and Housing Agency. (A widely-heralded, similar blueprint has already been done by the Sacramento Council of Governments suggests the promise of this cooperative approach to better planning.) Four Valley counties and several major cities are in the process of updating their general plans, and others are actively considering policies to address ranchettes, farmland mitigation and urban infill. Looming over their collective heads is a federal mandate for cleaner air that will almost certainly require the kind of changes in land use -- more compact, efficient, community-oriented development -- that can not only prevent smog from getting worse, but also save taxes and farmland. All of these fairly recent developments offer hope for the future -- if the public holds its leaders accountable for making the changes that are necessary.

California Future is Now Sutter Cranes
Photo by Ed Williams, CDFA

Ideas for Change

The solutions to sprawl in the Central Valley are as varied as the reasons it is occurring. They include changes in state policy like the effective enforcement of AB 857, a fairly new law calling for state agenices to invest in more efficient urban-centered development that avoids the best farmland, and improvements to the California Environmental Quality Act to remove obstacles to smarter growth while still protecting nature and communities. Another needed state policy reform is changing the way schools are located and built. Schools are a powerful magnet for residential development, but are now exempt from local government land use rules. And perhaps most important of all, state tax laws that force cities and counties to compete for revenue by opening their doors to almost any and all commercial development -- "fiscalizing" land use -- must be changed. These are all big issues that will require a broad public consensus to address.

These policy reforms at the state level would make it easier for city and county officials to exercise effective local control over development. But the buck really stops at the local level of government. Here, the challenge is fairly straightforward, if ambitious:

* Avoid development of the best farmland by taking full advantage of the alternatives that most cities and counties have.

* Develop the land more efficiently, using less acreage for commercial and civic uses as well as houses, while maintaining the quality of neighborhoods through more attractive, innovative design. This will be easier if communities ...

* Promote urban infill, transit-oriented and mixed-use development that reduces traffic congestion, air pollution and many public service costs.

* In the rural areas, discourage development of the 5 to 20-acre ranchettes that are spreading over the Valley floor as well as its foothills.

* Finally, once a basic land use plan -- ideally, one that embodies the foregoing principles -- has been adopted, don't amend it or other land use policies so often that respect for them is lost. Frequent changes embolden developers to pressure officials to approve pet projects that are inconsistent with current rules. In reaction, surprised and angry citizens fight back against virtually all development, beneficial or not. And farmers are tempted to become land speculators instead of champions for agriculture. Sound familiar?

What You Can Do -- Act Now!

Most city and county general plans in the Valley embrace the foregoing objectives. But they have been unable fully, or even partly, to achieve them. State policy and the weight of past decisions and practices -- the inertia of sprawl -- partly explain their lack of success. However, the ultimate reason for the continuation of the status quo is that more people -- civic and farm leaders, business people and ordinary citizens -- haven't insisted that well-intentioned plans be turned into reality.

So, if you live, work or farm in the Central Valley, it is up to you.

Start by ranking your own county's performance. Bring the facts about your county to the attention of local elected officials. Ask them why there is a gap between local plans and performance. Get the issue of farmland preservation on the agenda of your local planning commission, board of supervisors and city council. Stress the need to avoid high quality farmland, develop land more efficiently, promote urban infill and curb ranchettes. Support officials in their efforts to pursue these goals, to implement good plans, to adopt new policies that will reinforce them, and to resist frequent amendments that undermine respect for the whole process. And, to amplify your voice, join local and regional organizations that are working for the kind of change that will not only preserve the Central Valley's incomparable agriculture, but also improve its economy and quality of life.

Together, we can make a difference. And don't delay. The future is now.

[Back to top]


[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 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. For example, between 2000 and 2002, an additional 27,000 acres of farmland were urbanized. (Source: FMMP) We intend to update this report as new data become available.