NR 2007-17
September 21, 2007

Contact: Ed Wilson
Don Drysdale
Carrie Reinsimar
(916) 323-1886


SACRAMENTO – Two family owned Merced County farms in the path of increasing development pressure have been permanently set aside for agriculture through the efforts of state and local agencies.

“We’re very pleased that the Espinosa and Okuye farms will remain in agricultural use forever,” said Mike Chrisman, California Secretary for Resources. “Preserving farmland in the face of increasing growth pressures is essential for California’s economy and quality of life. As a fourth-generation rancher, I understand the hard work it takes to run a successful farm, and I applaud the landowners for their commitment to agriculture.”

Funding to purchase the easements was provided by the state Department of Conservation’s California Farmland Conservancy Program (CFCP) and the Modesto-based Great Valley Center. The Central Valley Farmland Trust will hold the easements.

The Okuye farm is located on 77.8 acres within a mile of the City of Livingston’s sphere of influence. Most of the property – farmed by the Okuye family for more than a century -- is planted in almonds of varying ages. This is the first easement in a highly productive area that consists primarily of family farms ranging from 20 to 100 acres in size.

“The Central Valley Farmland Trust is pleased to work with a landowner like Jean Okuye,” said Bill Martin, executive director of the Trust. “Her passion for farmland protection runs deep, as evidenced by an unwavering willingness to commit her property to productive agriculture for perpetuity.”

Nine miles away near Delhi – the fastest-growing community in Merced County – the Espinosa farm sits on two noncontiguous parcels, separately owned by a father and son, covering 77.3 acres. One parcel is planted in almonds, the other in almonds and peaches. The easement purchase potentially creates a buffer in the highly productive area east of Delhi that will steer development away from the prime agricultural land.

“I recently saw a report that said California’s population will be about 60 million by 2050,” Department of Conservation Director Bridgett Luther said, referring to a Department of Finance Report. “Delhi’s population has taken off over the last two decades. We’re not against growth, but we are trying to preserve as much of the high-quality Central Valley farmland as possible. These family farms represent small but significant steps in the effort to protect an irreplaceable natural resource.”

As of 2005, Merced County ranked fifth among California counties in total agricultural production (nearly $2.4 billion). According to the DOC, 3,078 acres of land were taken out of agricultural use in the county between 2002 and 2004, while local governments reported that an additional 866 acres had been committed to future nonagricultural use.

“Merced County’s rich farmland, unique growing conditions and talented agricultural workforce create nutritious food for the world and raw ingredients for a vibrant local food processing industry,” said Brian Leahy, head of DOC’s Division of Land Resource Protection. “It is important to the state and to Merced County to protect the ultimate renewable green industry, agriculture. This generous act by the Espinosa and Okuye families is a first step in protecting something worth keeping, Merced County’s agricultural base.”

The CFCP provided $856,875 to the Central Valley Farmland Trust to purchase the agricultural conservation easements on the farms. The Great Valley Center contributed $256,875. Founded in 1997, the Great Valley Center is a private, non-profit organization that supports activities and other organizations working to improve the economic, social and environmental well-being of California’s Central Valley, in partnership with the University of California, Merced.

“Agricultural easements like those the Okuye and Espinosa families placed on their properties provide the cornerstones of strategic models that demonstrate the possibilities for successful farmland protection – the type of protection that assures future generations that they will have access to this valuable resource,” said Holly King, director of agricultural programs for the Great Valley Center.

The Central Valley Farmland Trust, based in Elk Grove, was founded in 2004 to help farmers and landowners who want to keep their land in agriculture. The trust’s board includes farmers and professionals from Sacramento, San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced counties with expertise and interest in protecting important farmlands in the Central Valley.

The CFCP is designed to ensure that the state's most valuable farmland will not be developed by steering growth away from areas that are preserved with agriculture conservation easements. Through the program, local governments and non-profit organizations can receive grants to purchase development rights from willing landowners, thus creating permanent conservation easements.

CFCP funds remain for new grant proposals. Landowners and trusts are encouraged to contact the Department of Conservation/Division of Land Resource Protection for information on the program and potential grant funding.

The state also offers programs -- the Williamson Act and Farmland Security Zones -- that provide financial incentives to keep land in agricultural use for periods of 10 and 20 years.

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