NR 2004-18
June 15, 2004

Contact: Anita Gore
Ed Wilson
Mark Oldfield
Don Drysdale
(916) 323-1886


SACRAMENTO -- The amount of agricultural land continued to decrease while urbanized land increased in the greater Los Angeles area, according to new maps released by the California Department of Conservation.

Since a 1998-2000 study, nearly 6,800 acres of farmland and grazing land have been removed from agricultural categories in Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties, while 5,339 acres were added to the urban total.

In the Inland Empire, the numbers are more eye-opening. More than 36,000 acres of farmland and grazing land were reclassified and more than 20,000 acres were added to the urban totals in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

These are the most accurate portrayals of land-use change in the area ever offered thanks to the use of higher-resolution imagery. For example, development in desert areas of San Bernardino County were much more evident in this mapping cycle.

The Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program (FMMP), part of DOC's Division of Land Resource Protection, documents land-use conversion on 45.8 million acres of California’s private and public land every two years. The maps and statistics are designed to help local governments evaluate land-use planning decisions. The 2002 analysis is nearly complete statewide, while 2004 mapping is getting underway.

“This information helps counties and cities see the patterns and make informed choices about how they want to direct growth in the future,” Department of Conservation Director Darryl Young said. “The population of California will continue to grow, and it’s vital that we ensure there’s enough room for both people and agriculture.”

Since the 1990 survey, more than 130,000 acres have been removed from agricultural uses in the five-county area while urbanization claimed more than 144,000 acres. Over the 1990-2002 period, new urbanization in the greater Los Angeles area was equivalent to the size of all 16 Orange County cities from the Los Angeles County line south to Costa Mesa and east to Anaheim/Yorba Linda. Annually, this equates to new urban land acreage larger than the city of Thousand Oaks.

The Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program classifies land as either farmland (prime being the best of four types of farmland), grazing land, urban land, other land or water. The “other” category includes low-density "ranchettes," wetlands, and brush or timberlands unsuitable for grazing.

A closer look at each county:

  •  In Orange County, 4,609 acres of new urban land were developed on a mixture of irrigated farmland and non-agricultural land. Urbanization accounted for almost all the net decrease of 3,348 acres in agricultural categories. Since 1990, Orange County gained just over 25,000 urban acres as it lost 9,400 farmland acres. Orange County cities reported that 9,920 acres have been committed to non-agricultural uses due to the approval of subdivision maps, the sale of bonds for infrastructure, or other permanent commitments.

  • Ventura County mapping resulted in the reclassification of 2,011 acres of agricultural land, mostly to urban uses. Urban acreage increased by 2,557 acres. Data from the 1990-2002 period indicates a net increase of more than 11,800 acres in urban and a decline of almost 8,700 farmland acres. City reports showed that an additional 7,500 acres are committed to future nonagricultural use.

  • The most surprising land use trend has been the resurgence of irrigated agriculture in the Antelope Valley of Los Angeles County. Baby carrots, alfalfa, and other vegetables planted on land that had been long idled caused an increase of nearly 3,600 acres in prime farmland in the county, the highest level of active use since the mapping program began in 1984. Combined with urbanization and other changes, however, total agriculture declined by more than 1,400 acres.

  • Los Angeles County was also an unusual case in that the improvements to mapping urban boundaries in 2002 virtually negated actual urbanization in the statistics. Over the 1990 to 2002 period, however, the county gained just under 12,000 urban acres — mostly from non-agricultural hillsides and grazing areas. Urbanization trends are expected to continue, as cities in the county reported 10,570 acres committed to nonagricultural use in the future.

  • In Riverside County, 13,166 acres of agricultural land – including almost 9,300 acres of prime farmland -- were reclassified to non-agricultural use, while 8,050 acres of new urbanized land were noted. Over the 1990-2002 timeframe, Riverside County posted the largest increase in urbanization among the five Southland counties – nearly 66,000 acres – accompanied by a loss of more than 50,000 acres of prime farmland (78% of the total loss in agricultural land). Additionally, the county reports almost 44,000 acres as committed to future nonagricultural use.

  • San Bernardino County had a net loss of 23,418 agricultural acres – mainly grazing land, but also 3,300 acres of prime farmland – and 12,133 acres of new urban land. These figures were larger than average due to the availability of high-resolution photography in the area north of the San Bernardino Mountains. Between 1990 and 2002, San Bernardino County’s urban land increased by nearly 40,000 acres and farmland losses were pegged at more than 47,000 acres. Jurisdictions in the county reported 15,047 acres committed to future nonagricultural use.

The agricultural land in these Southern California counties will continue to face development pressure in the foreseeable future. The California Department of Finance projects that the population of the five counties will grow by nearly 5 million between 2000 and 2020.

Enrollment in the Williamson Act – a voluntary program that gives landowners potential property tax breaks in exchange for a 10-year commitment to maintain agricultural or open-space uses – dropped by 33 percent between 1991 and 2002 in the five-county area. Removing land from a Williamson Act contract is often a precursor to development.

According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, Ventura County remained in the top 10 counties for gross agricultural value at more than $1.16 billion in 2002, while Riverside County was in the number 11 position at $1.06 billion. San Bernardino, Orange and Los Angeles counties had a combined 2002 production value of $1.25 billion.

The maps have been sent to county planning officials and organizations such as county Farm Bureaus, Local Agency Formation Commissions, city planners, irrigation districts and county Resource Conservation Districts. Printed copies, enlargements, or digital versions of the maps are available to the public. Call (916) 324-0859 or email for more information.

The latest statewide study by the FMMP, Farmland Conversion Report 1998-2000, was released last June. More than 91,000 acres were urbanized throughout the state – a 30-percent increase from the 1996-98 mapping cycle – and 27 percent of that total came from irrigated farmland.

Through the Department of Conservation, the state offers programs that provide financial incentives to keep land in agricultural use. The California Farmland Conservancy Program makes grants available to local governments, land trusts or resource conservation districts to purchase permanent agricultural conservation easements from willing landowners. These easements prohibit future development. Farmland Security Zone and Williamson Act contracts provide potential tax benefits to landowners who commit to keeping their land in agricultural use for periods of 20 or 10 years, respectively.

In addition to administering agricultural and open-space land conservation programs, the Department of Conservation ensures the reclamation of land used for mining; promotes beverage container recycling; regulates oil, gas and geothermal wells; and studies and maps earthquakes and other geologic phenomena.