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

Where is the Central Valley Heading?
Projection of Current Trends



2040 Population Forecast


Population will continue to drive the development of farmland in the Central Valley. The Demographic Research Unit of the California Department of Finance forecasts that the Valley's population will more than double by the year 2040 to almost 10 million people. This represents an annual growth rate that is almost 40 percent higher than what occurred in the 1990s. Obviously, this will challenge Valley communities as never before to grow efficiently and protect their most important agricultural resources.

Development of Farmland

If, however, the land use trends of the 1990s continue and population forecasts are accurate, [1] the Central Valley can expect to lose another 882,000 acres of farmland to urbanization and ranchette development by the year 2040.[2] This would represent a 111% increase,[3] bringing the total area of developed land in the Valley to 1.68 million acres. And, unless things change, a significant amount of the additional land lost to agriculture will be high quality farmland, of which there is now only 6.3 million acres in the region. [4]

Projected Development of
Farmland by 2040
Under Current Trends

Unless things change, nearly 900,000 more acres of Central Valley farmland will be destroyed in the coming generation.

Urban development will increase by 569,000 acres, assuming that efficiency does not improve from the 8.1 people per urbanized acre that characterized development the 1990s. Ranchettes will expand by about 626,000 and acres, assuming that they continue to average 5 acres in size and that the proportion of the non-farm rural population continues to be about 20 percent, which could be an optimistic assumption. To be very conservative in our forecast, however, we assumed that only half of the ranchette development (313,000 ac) will occur on the floor of the Valley rather than in the coastal and Sierra foothills where it is less likely to have an impact on agricultural production. This assumption is based on the only map we know of that shows the actual distribution of ranchette development in four Valley counties. [5]

On another 2 million or more acres, agriculture could be compromised by potential conflicts with nearby urban uses.

When we projected future growth in our 1995 study, Alternatives for Future Urban Growth in California's Central Valley, we looked not only at the amount of land that would be urbanized, but also at the amount that would remain in agricultural use, but would be affected by potential conflicts arising from its proximity to nearby residences. The GIS computer program we used calculated that amount of farmland falling within this "zone of conflict" would range from 2.5 to 3.3 times the acreage of farmland actually developed. We were unable to make such a projection in this study. But if we apply the most conservative findings of our previous study to the farmland conversion findings of this study, it would imply that, in addition to the 882,000 acres of farmland that are projected to be developed by the year 2040, about 2.2 million additional acres of farmland could become prone to land use conflicts, increasing the risks and costs of agriculture while decreasing its competitiveness. All told, more than 3 million acres of Central Valley farmland could be affected by urbanization in the coming generation.

Agricultural Production

Photo by Ed Williams, CDFAThe projected loss of farmland to development if current trends continue will reduce the agricultural production capacity of the Valley. Using conservative assumptions, we estimate that the annual value of production capacity permanently lost to development will reach $814 million by the year 2040. [6] Between now and then, the cumulative loss of farm gate sales will be around $17.7 billion. (Both figures in 2000 dollars.) Productivity gains will probably enable agricultural output to increase through the period, but the increase in output — and the capacity for additional output — will be lower than they would be if 882,000 acres of farmland had not been lost to development.

Present trends lead to the loss of $814 million a year in lost agricultural production capacity by 2040, and a cumulative loss of $17.7 billion in farm gate sales through 2040.

These estimates do not take into account the productivity that could be lost due to urban conflicts. One of the most significant impacts that urbanization and ranchette development may have on Central Valley agriculture, even without taking the land itself, could be on dairy production, which now accounts for 22% of the value of the Valley's total annual agricultural output. Most dairy production now occurs on large operations that concentrate many animals on relatively little land, creating such a high potential for conflicts with nearby residences that the location of these dairies is already highly regulated.

Photo Courtesy of Great Valley Center

Agricultural Land Values: The Wild Card

The foregoing analysis ignores the potential impact of increasing land values on the continued availability of farmland for agricultural production. As we have seen, the price of farmland in many areas of the Central Valley is already being bid up above the amount growers can pay and still turn a profit from agriculture. [See Land Price Inflation] The price increases appear to be driven by competition from ranchettes and other rural development that local land use policies fail to discourage.

Future Farmland Losses Can Be Significantly Reduced

The important thing to keep in mind about these potential losses of Central Valley farmland and agricultural production capacity is that they are not inevitable. They will happen only if current development patterns continue. A significant amount of farmland can be saved — without inhibiting economic growth or preventing development outright — through more efficient land use patterns. In addition to helping to maintain the economic health of the agriculture industry, more efficient use of land can also reduce traffic congestion, improve air quality and health, and conserve water, wildlife habitat and other natural resources. But Valley communities cannot wait much longer to take the actions necessary to achieve these goals.

[Go to the next section: Time for Change]

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[1] Since 1993 when the figures AFT's 1995 study relied on were published, the state Department of Finance has significantly reduced its population forecast for the year 2040. Corrected to reflect actual population growth through 2000, AFT's 1995 projection of farmland loss for the 1990s under a business-as-usual scenario of 98,861 was remarkably close to the 97,608 acres that were actually urbanized during the period.

[2] This is a conservative when compared with other recent estimates. For example a 2005 study by the Public Policy Institute of California, Urban Development Futures in the San Joaquin Valley, forecast a 422% increase in urbanized land in just 8 counties by the year 2040.

[3] See Table.

Summary of Developed Acreage
2040 Incr
Pct Incr
* Assumes only half of new ranchettes are on Valley floor.

[4] It bears mention, however, that about 61 percent of the land within current city spheres of influence — the land they intend to develop — is high quality farmland. (This excludes 188 thousand acres of "other" land within the city spheres in Kern County.) "Only" 53 percent of the land developed in the 1990s was high quality farmland.

[5] Other assumptions and the method used to calculate these projections can be found in the section on Methodology & Background Data.

[6] See Agricultural Projections XLS document. This figure is comparable to what AFT concluded in its 1995 study Alternatives for Future Urban Growth, after corrections have been made for a shorter time period and a somewhat lower rate of farmland development due to slower population growth than the forecast we used for the earlier study.

1995 Study
2005 Study
Time Period
48 years
40 years
Projected Farmland Loss
Lost Agricultural Production (Million)
Corrected for Time Period

* Includes projected loss 2000-2040 plus 97,608 acres developed 1990-2000.

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