California Farmland Protection: Reality or Wishful Thinking?

Last week, in the beautiful Napa Valley, the American Farmland Trust and Napa County Farm Bureau hosted a statewide conference – the first of its kind – to address the question: Is farmland conservation a reality, or simply wishful thinking? The intention was to “highlight the successes, define the obstacles, and explore new directions for conserving California agricultural land.”

The 200-person event sold out weeks in advance, bringing together many long-time stakeholders who have worked for decades on farmland issues: advocates, land trusts, government agencies, Farm Bureau members, nonprofit organizations and farmers themselves.  It seemed nearly every agriculture county in the state was present to learn how we can address the frightening reality of losing 30,000 acres of the most fertile agricultural land each year.

“Important Farmland in California, 2002”

The conference also coincided perfectly with the FarmsReach Farmland Conservation & Estate Planning Toolkit, which we just released last week!   Having spent a few months researching the issues and interviewing farmland preservation stakeholders, we were excited to share we had just launched our compiled industry-recommended resources:

Being a part of this timely gathering was a great opportunity to hear about the varied approaches from our Toolkit in practice, and we will indeed be adding more useful resources to it in the coming weeks.

What’s the big deal with CA agriculture and farmland?

Karen Ross, the CA Secretary of Food & Agriculture, started the day illustrating just how critical our state’s food production is, and why the protection of CA farmland paired with smart development strategies for the growing population is imperative:

  • CA is the world’s most productive farming region.Quote
  • CA has 81,500 farms, growing 400 different crops.
  • CA has only 2% of total US farmland, but produces 12% of the total food value in the country.
  • CA feeds its 36 million residents, in addition to just about every other US state, and countless countries around the globe.
  • Of the 43 million acres of cropland in CA, 9 million acres are irrigated for crops and are considered prime farmland.
  • Astoundingly, 600 million acres of agricultural lands have been lost since 1990 and one-sixth of the total amount of development in CA (since the gold rush) has occurred in the last two decades.

Unfortunately, CA lags behind other states in land preservation.  We spend about 10 cents per capita per year on conservation easements, compared to other states like Maryland and Pennsylvania, which spend $4 and $2 per capita per year, respectively.  For the amount of food we produce, we aren’t doing enough to ensure the continued productivity of our agriculture sector.

No Farms No Food

“We wouldn’t ever pave over the most prime farmland, would we?” This is Los Angeles and Orange County — once the most prime farmland in CA, and beyond.

Thus, some of the most fertile productive land is being snatched up by developers and taken out of food production.   Ed Thompson, CA director of the American Farmland Trust, rhetorically asked the audience: “We wouldn’t ever pave over the most prime farmland, would we?”  Oh yes, and we did, he explained.  Just look at Los Angeles and Orange counties.  It’s easy to develop the land, but returning it to agricultural use is practically impossible. Let’s not repeat this elsewhere!

Despite hearing many great ideas and emerging best practices during the conference, farmland preservation is inherently complicated because it isn’t just about the agriculture industry; it involves environmentalists, economic development agencies, water agencies, county, regional and state policy-makers, energy companies, and – really – anyone who eats.

What has been working?

The highly regarded yet currently defunded Williamson Act was a real focal point of the day’s discussion.  It contracts with landowners to continue farming their land for at least 10 more years in return for significant property tax deductions.  Unfortunately, the program lost funding in 2008-2009 because of CA’s budget woes.  With over 16 million acres of farm and ranchland under Williamson Act program contracts, this leaves landowners susceptible to higher property tax rates, and would-be enrollees tempted by a development deal too good to refuse.  We need to get this program funded – and soon!

Alternatively, conservation easements have also been historically highly regarded, where a land owner sells his/her development rights in perpetuity to a land trust (with capital from public or private sources) in return for tax benefits.  Once the development rights are sold, this essentially ensures the farmland is protected indefinitely. Unfortunately, as with the Williamson Act, there is a dearth of funding among land trusts that provide this valuable financial service.  In fact, as we heard from several regions’ speakers, there are many land owners who currently want conservation easements, but the land trusts simply have no capital.  It seems there is an opportunity for some new, creative financing strategies for land trusts, and/or new evolutions of the conservation easement model.


Through the many case studies presented throughout the day, another factor emerged as a certain best practice: strategic collaborations and creative framing of the issue.  It is one fight trying to protect land for the sake of protecting agriculture and Mother Nature.  It is an entirely different, exponentially more powerful fight protecting farmland to preserve our state’s economic vitality and jobs, quality water supply, fisheries, culture, artisan food movement, open space AND agriculture.  Several regions have been successful by educating the public on the cultural heritage of their agriculture roots, which results in more votes for smart land use planning and policy change.

The most compelling success stories seemed to always involve hands-on regional and local planners and policy-makers – investing energy, research, funding or simple influence to address land issues in their area.  Barbara Steck of the Fresno Council of Governments summarizes each of their roles in taking farmland preservation from vision to reality:

  • Regional Agencies create the high-level VISION.
  • Local Agencies have the AUTHORITY.
  • Constituents are the CHAMPIONS.

What else is needed?

There were numerous, creative solutions presented during the day’s panels and discussions, but there were unfortunately an equal number of obstacles…or rather, opportunities for improvement.  We noticed different stakeholders hold different opinions about what the key levers for change may be.

Below we outline a few ideas for change that were brought up by multiple presenters:

  • “A durable coalition” comprised of cross-sector, interdisciplinary advocates for farmland preservation to basically be a reliable, strategic powerhouse to show up in decision-making hearings, meetings and events re: zoning, land use policy-making and development.
  • The passing of the California Farmland Protection Act (AB-523), a two-year bill that will be reconsidered in 2014, due to there being insufficient agreement among stakeholders regarding the specific language of the bill, but sufficient support for the intent of a bill overall.  AB-523 would require permanent protection of one acre of farmland for every acre converted to residential, industrial and infrastructural development projects.
  • Increased funding for the Williamson Act to keep farmers farming and farmland producing food.
  • Modifications to the Williamson Act to tie taxes to farmland production, not farmland value.  As property values in CA increase, farmers shouldn’t have to pay more taxes when their food production revenue remains relatively the same.  Let’s not give farms a reason to resort to selling to developers.
  • Reduced estate taxes for farmland owners in general.
  • Considerations on how regulations impact farm profits (read: farm sector viability).
  • Increased funding to land trusts and agricultural land trusts, which fund conservation easements.
  • Increased attention and funding from local and regional stakeholders to their farmland issues and policies.
FarmsReach Farmland Toolkit

FarmsReach Farmland Conservation &
Estate Planning Toolkit

Check out the conference program and speakers’ presentations.  Soon, we’ll be posting a handful of them as webinar videos to our Toolkit.  Stay tuned!

Here at FarmReach, we strive to better inform farmers and landowners to understand these complex issues, and access tools to protect their land for future generations.  Check out our Farmland Conservation & Estate Planning Toolkit, and let us know what you think.

Do you have any practical resources you think farmers and ranchers would benefit from reading?  Please contact us!  We would love to include your additions.


4 Thoughts on “California Farmland Protection: Reality or Wishful Thinking?

  1. Michael H. McGrath on August 9, 2013 at 1:54 am said:

    You might want to check out the State of Delaware, arguably the nation’s most successful farmland preservation program (relative to size!), where the state spends more than $10 per capita EACH YEAR to preserve farmland! Delaware also matches up well with Vermont (preserving land for much longer) in total dollars spent per capita, % of farming area permanently preserved and in the percentage of the total state’s budget spent on preservation. And though small in size Delaware is a FARM STATE, placing in the top ten states in terms of percentage of land in crops. Also, Delaware typically ranks as the TOP STATE, or near the top, in net farm income per operating unit. So, when your article mentions Maryland and Pennsylvania as comparisons to California, you might give a nod to Delaware, too, the nation’s giant (though small in stature!).

    • Michael H. McGrath on August 9, 2013 at 1:57 am said:

      BTW, one more thing! Currently, Delaware farmers pay NO PROPERTY taxes on productive farmland! Another policy in which Delaware leads the nation – we love farmers and farmland!

  2. Melanie Cheng on August 9, 2013 at 10:56 am said:

    Michael, thanks for the Delaware info. $10 per capita for farmland preservation is incredible! We’ll look into this and perhaps add into the post. Thanks again for sharing.

  3. Michael H. McGrath on August 10, 2013 at 3:46 am said:

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