Conference tackles farmland preservation

Published online: Aug 14, 2013
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NAPA, Calif.-Farm Bureau members, state officials and agriculture advocates from across California came to Napa on Aug. 2 to dissect and address the question: "Is farmland conservation a reality or wishful thinking?"

"California is losing 30,000 acres of agricultural land a year and this cannot continue," said American Farmland Trust's Richard Rominger. "This loss threatens the food supply of California, the United States and those around the world that depend on California for food."

He said the continued loss of farmland is a national security issue because it threatens biodiversity, the state's economic health and U.S. food security.

The conference was co-sponsored by the Napa County Farm Bureau and the trust.

"The timing for this conference is perfect," keynote speaker Karen Ross, California Secretary of Food and Agriculture, said. "This is in line with Napa County Farm Bureau celebrating its 100th anniversary and the economic changes at the national level. But what would Americans eat without California?"

California has been the No. 1 agriculture-producing state since the USDA began collecting statistics. It's also No. 1 in productivity, more than the next two states-Iowa and Texas-combined. California grows 400 crops commercially.

"We do this in the country's most populated state and next to Hawaii, California has the most threatened and endangered species," she said. "We do it in a way that has stewardship values and allows farmers to co-exist with our urban neighbors and thanks to precious soil and microclimates, we can grow anything."

But, fewer farmers are working the land, Ross said, so it's time to stand up in local and state meetings and talk about land use and the value of farmland preservation.

"I recommend that people who are lucky enough to have three meals a day have a stake in farmland preservation," she said. "It's the right time for all of us to come together."

Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, said his biggest challenge is whether he and his family can stay in farming just off Highway 99 in Modesto.

"I thought we protected our land from development in the '90s but the next generation of land developers, lawyers, engineers and real estate folks are saying we have to have shovel-ready land for commercial development in this area," he said. "Now here we go again."

He pointed out that the Williamson Act is important to farmers, who get a property tax break under it. The state reimburses the counties the lost tax revenue. It allows farmers to avoid having to transition their land to other uses because of high taxes.

Intense regulations and water quality issues also drive farmers off the land, he said.

The California Rangeland Trust is the largest land trust in California. It was started 15 years ago on the principle that there might be an interest for ranchers to protect their ranches from generational succession and estate taxes, the trust's Michael Delbar said.

"For example, there might be a sibling or an heir who wanted to leave ranching to live in the city or just not to work that hard," he said. "They want to leave but knew their land had value and wanted to take that value out."

That idea grew and the Rangeland Trust-made up of cattle associations, the Nature Conservancy, educational organizations and environmental groups-was born. Today there is a waiting list of over 100 ranches and 450,000 acres waiting to be conserved. Ranches are protected not only from development but from ag intensification.

"We recognize that the value of our working ranches to the environmental integrity of the state is critical, "he said. "Conservation is not for everyone but it's a valuable tool."