NR 2007-09
March 16, 2007

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




SACRAMENTO – What is the state of farming and ranching in California as National Agriculture Week approaches? Similar to the variety of commodities produced here, it’s a mixed bag.

“On one hand, the total value of California’s crops (more than $32 billion) has never been higher,” said California Secretary for Resources Mike Chrisman, a fourth-generation rancher. “And I recently read a California Farm Bureau Federation survey that said young farmers and ranchers are optimistic about the future.

“On the other hand, the total acreage involved in agriculture has decreased steadily over the last several years, and in some areas, there’s an eyebrow-raising amount of development going on that’s permanently taking prime farmland out of production.”

The Resources Agency and Department of Conservation today called upon Californians to take a moment to reflect on the work of farmers and ranchers during National Agricultural Week. Started in 1973 by the Agricultural Council of America, National Agriculture Week runs March 17- 23. California Agriculture Day will be celebrated on the west steps of the Capitol on March 20.

“We need to remember that food doesn’t magically show up in supermarkets, but is the result of the efforts of thousands of people,” DOC Director Bridgett Luther said. “Our farmers and ranchers help feed the state, the nation and the world. We’re thankful for their work and mindful of its importance.”

The DOC helps guide the use of the state's natural resources, including farmland, to ensure a safe, productive environment for California's present and future generations. Agriculture remains California’s largest industry thanks to farmers and ranchers who have found ways to be more productive on less land.

“We are all aware that if California was a nation, its economy would rank among the world’s largest, and agriculture is a huge part of that,” Luther said. “We’re blessed with a great climate and some of the world’s finest farmland. But good soil is a limited resource, so we must work to conserve it.”

Farmland protection is a key issue for both DOC and Luther, who founded the Carolinas office of the Trust for Public Land, a national land conservation organization, before moving to California a few years ago. Through its Division of Land Resource Protection (DLRP), DOC oversees several programs that help ensure the state’s continued agricultural production by balancing the needs of a growing population with those of agricultural concerns.

A closer look at those programs:

Williamson Act: More than 16.6 million acres – about half of California’s agricultural land -- are enrolled in this program, which has been widely credited with reducing “leapfrog” development. The Williamson Act provides tax incentives to landowners who voluntarily place land in contracts that continuously restrict development for 10 years into the future until the landowner begins the process of exiting the restrictions (non-renewal). The current budget earmarks nearly $40 million to reimburse the 54 participating counties for some of the property tax revenues they lose.

As of January 1, 2005, 314,880 acres of contracted land were in some stage of non-renewal.

“Those are the highest non-renewal numbers we’ve ever seen,” said Brian Leahy, a former organic farmer who heads DLRP.

Farmland Security Zones: An offshoot of the Williamson Act, this program creates 20-year non-development contracts. Landowners receive additional tax incentives to participate in this program. About 818,000 acres in 21 counties are enrolled.

Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program: Every two years, this program produces a report documenting land-use conversion on more than 90 percent of California’s private lands. FMMP maps are distributed to local governments to help evaluate land-use planning decisions.

The California Farmland Conversion Report 2002-2004 will be released in the coming months. A statewide summary is undergoing final analysis, but the data for the Central San Joaquin Valley serves as a sneak preview that raises concerns: 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. That’s an increase in converted ag land of more than 4,000 acres since the 2000-2002 report.

“It may not seem like much acreage day to day, but over time, it adds up,” Luther said.

California Farmland Conservancy Program: The CFCP seeks to encourage the long-term, private stewardship of agricultural lands through the voluntary use of agricultural conservation easements. Begun in 1996, this program has provided $53 million in funding to permanently shield 35,000 acres of the state’s best and most vulnerable agricultural land from development. Most projects are completed in partnership with federal, state or local governments and nonprofit land trusts.

The CFCP also provides policy/planning grants to local land trusts and other organizations that are helping to build land preservation policies and ethics in their own communities.

“Land use planning in California is local, and helping to develop strong local organizations to guide communities through the challenge of population growth while preserving important farmland is one of the best investments the state can make in providing a better future for California,” Leahy said.

Resource Conservation Districts: RCDs are locally governed agencies set up as special districts with their own locally appointed or elected boards of directors. DLRP supports – financially and otherwise -- the state’s 102 RCDs. These districts undertake projects such as agricultural land conservation, watershed planning and management, and recreational land restoration. A new round of grants to fund local watershed coordinators is expected in the fall of 2007.

“We take pride in helping to protect California’s farmland,” Chrisman said. “National Agriculture Week is the ideal time to reflect on all that our farmers and ranchers do for society.”