NR 2007-08
March 14, 2007

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


SACRAMENTO -- Bill and Anna Wattenbarger take great pleasure in watching their 3½-year-old grandson pretend to drive around the family farm, imitating the chores of his father, Dan. They’re pleased to know that when little Logan is ready to drive a real tractor, the farm will still be there.

“That’s what my husband Bill and I always hoped and dreamed about, keeping the farm going,” Anna Wattenbarger said. “Dan is the fourth generation farming this land, and he has two little boys, Logan and Jett (1). Logan shows every indication he’s going to be a farmer, too.”

Added Bill Wattenbarger: “For some, farming is just a business. But this land is precious to us.”

The 216-acre property, one of the Wattenbarger family’s farms, is located between the cities of Fresno and Madera along the northern edge of the San Joaquin River in Madera County. The farm produces Thompson seedless raisins, almonds and Zante currants. The family doesn’t have to drive too far off its property to see approaching development, especially from the Fresno side.

“There’s a lot more traffic, and Fresno’s a lot closer than it used to be,” Mrs. Wattenbarger said.

According to a recent report from the California Department of Conservation (DOC), 18,801 acres of land in Fresno, Kings, Merced, Madera, and Tulare counties were converted from farmland or grazing land to non-agricultural uses between 2002 and 2004, an average of nearly 26 acres a day.

But the Wattenbargers’ property will never be developed. Through the California Farmland Conservancy Program (CFCP), the DOC financed the creation of an agricultural conservation easement on the land. The landowners contributed in the form of a bargain sale price and a donation to the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust to be used for ongoing monitoring and stewardship of the easement. The family maintains control of farming operations.

“I know just how the Wattenbarger family feels about its land,” said Secretary for Resources Mike Chrisman, a fourth-generation rancher in Tulare County. “Projects like this help us achieve the goal of keeping as much of our farmland in agriculture as possible. Doing so is vital to the future of our state.”

The CFCP is designed to ensure that the state's most valuable farmland will not be developed.

Begun in 1996, the CFCP has provided $53 million in grant funding to permanently shield 35,000 acres of the state’s best and most vulnerable agricultural land from development.

“Farmers need land for crops, and our growing population needs land for homes, schools, parks and business,” noted DOC Director Bridgett Luther. “The needs of those two sides don’t always fit together perfectly. But our California Farmland Conservancy Program is a partnership of landowners, land stewards and government agencies that helps maintain a balance between growth and agriculture.”

Added Brian Leahy, head of DOC’s Division of Land Resource Protection: “We’re particularly pleased with the completion of this project since it’s in an area where so much farmland is being urbanized and involves a dedicated farming family.”

Bill Wattenbarger’s grandparents, Martha and Gilmore “Mac” Wattenbarger, began the farm in 1915. Bill was born there in 1936. He married Anna in 1964. With the exception of their first year of marriage, when they lived in Fresno, Bill and Anna have lived on the farm since, raising two sons.

“We’ve added to the original property,” Anna Wattenbarger said. “We’ve grown all kinds of crops on the land - at various times, cotton, corn, sugar beets, alfalfa and other things. We’ve slowly but surely moved into permanent crops. Bill is semi-retired now. He only works when he wants to. We’re just very happy to know that future generations will be able to farm here, too.”

The San Joaquin River Parkway & Conservation Trust, Inc., is a non-profit corporation created in 1988 to protect and restore 33 miles of river in the rapidly urbanizing Fresno-Madera region. In partnership with state and federal agencies and local governments, the Trust has been successful in protecting land through fee title acquisition, conservation easements, and wildlife habitat restoration. The CFCP previously gave the Trust a planning grant to develop potential agricultural conservation easements; the Wattenbarger Farm project is a direct result of that partnership. The Trust has invited all landowners in this section of the river to consider participation in the CFCP program.

“We must ensure the San Joaquin River continues to support the farmers, families, fish and wildlife that depend on the river,” said Dave Koehler, executive director of the Trust. “We hope that other landowners take note of what the Wattenbarger family has done. It makes great sense for those landowners who are committed to farming, and to being good stewards of land.”