Iowa Public Television


Urban Sprawl

posted on August 28, 2009

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According to the American Farmland Trust¸ nearly 1,500 acres of U.S. farmland are lost to development every day. And nowhere is the war over urban sprawl more contentious than in the nation's top agricultural state – California.

Increasingly though, "Golden State" farmers and ranchers have tried to protect their land -- and remain profitable -- by enrolling in a state program created by the Williamson Act.

The law was designed to protect agriculture and open spaces from urban encroachment. It allowed landowners to enter into 10-year contracts with local governments so that rural property was taxed at lower, agricultural rates rather than at the higher rates assessed to developed land. And the state reimbursed local governments for the lost tax revenue.

According to the California Department of Conservation, 17 million acres of farmland are enrolled in Williamson Act contracts, and the state spent about $38 million on the program last year.

But prior to signing California's latest budget in July, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger "terminated" funding for the program. And as Andrew Batt explains, landowners, developers and academics continue to weigh the pros and cons of urban sprawl.

Edward Thompson, Director, California Chapter, American Farmland Trust: "We are paving over 50,000 acres of some of the best farmland on this planet in California every year, and we're doing it in the most inefficient way possible. We are paving an acre for every eight new people."

Ed Thompson directs the California Chapter of the American Farmland Trust and co-authored a paper titled "Paving Paradise: A New Prospective on California Farmland Conversion. According to the report, of all land urbanized in California between 1990 and 2004, over 326,000 acres or 61 % was farmland.

Edward Thompson, Director, California Chapter, American Farmland Trust: "If we keep doing what we're doing we're going to loose another 2 million acres of some of the best land on earth by the year 2050. If we were simply to increase that 8 people per acre and double that figure then we save, you know, over a half million acres, uh, just in the next generation. It's really simple to do but it takes the political will to make it happen."

Currently, the world's population is estimated at more than 6.7 billion people, which is more than double what it was in 1965. What concerns people like Thompson are AFT estimates that by 2050 farmers and ranchers will need to produce more food for more people on 13 percent less land. However, not everyone agrees.

Professor John Hart, University of Minnesota: "…and I think there's some political pressure groups that are trying to impose their ideas on society, and the American Farmland Trust is pushing a particular agenda and they're trying to encourage people to do what they think they should be doing."

Professor John Hart teaches geography at the University of Minnesota and has authored several books on agriculture as well as a paper titled Specialty Cropland in California. According to Hart technological advances have allowed farmers to produce more on less land and that urban encroachment simply shifts the geographic location of farms.

Professor John Hart, University of Minnesota: "Urban sprawl for many farmers is the best thing that could happen. Most farmers notoriously are land rich and cash poor. Most farmers live poor die rich because their capital is tied up in the land. And city people have a lot more capital available than farmers do, and so city people, the developer can buy out the farmer for a lot more than he could make on his land, and that gives him a nest egg to go someplace else."

Los Angeles is home to nearly 18 million people and covers close to 34,000 square miles in five different counties. Despite being located in the middle of a desert, the "City of Angels" has a long history of businesses and residential homes replacing orchards and dairies.

In Los Angeles County, the city of Dairy Valley actually got its name from the over 400 dairies in the area. In 1956, cows outnumbered the 3,400 residents by nearly 30 to 1, and at one time more milk was produced in Dairy Valley than anywhere else in the nation. But, as more and more people moved to Dairy Valley, pastureland became too valuable to farm, and in 1963, residents voted to allow large-scale residential development of agricultural land.

Four years later the city of Dairy Valley changed its name to Cerritos. In 2008 the population was 52,300 people… and no cows. .

Willem DeBoer, Tulare, California: "Now with all the urban encroachment and the traffic and you know the people, the general public, you know they don't want to be too close to dairies and flies." (Anything else for this sync?)

Willem DeBoer's grandfather was a dairy farmer in Dairy Valley. When the herds moved further out to the Chino Valley, his mom and dad began a dairy operation in the city of Ontario. The dairy he grew up on is now for sale because urban sprawl has pushed the most of the cows out of the Chino Valley and 200 miles further north to Tulare County.

With over 300 operations, Tulare County ranks first nationally in dairy production. It's also where Willem DeBoer has been milking cows since 1992

Willem DeBoer, Tulare, California: "I think at the time land was $3,500 an acre up here versus land down there was probably selling for 50,000 an acre or so back in those days. So, you know, plus you could acquire a lot more land which is just better to handle your nutrient, you know, management along with your farming, grow some feed for the cows and just have a little more room than what we had in Southern California."

When he lived in Ontario, DeBoer had to truck manure 200 miles for disposal and haul feed in for his cows. In Tulare County he's able to reduce costs by applying manure on his own land to fertilize crops that feed his cows. The operation's 3,000 cows are milked 24/7 and produce over 50,000 gallons of milk daily.

Willem DeBoer, Tulare, California: "You know the American consumer, I think, wants cheap food and you know that trickles all the way down to us and we have to produce it as cheaply as possible."

It is exactly that, the economics of food production, which causes farmers to leapfrog urban sprawl for greener pastures. Urbanization often brings tougher environmental regulations, new neighbors who often complain about noise and odors associated with farming, and not surprisingly -- rapidly appreciating farmland values.

Between 2000 and 2006, Ontario land values skyrocketed from $50,000 per acre to $100,000 to more than $500,000 dollars an acre. Many of the dairies that are still in the area are there solely because of the California Land Conservation Act of 1965, which allows farmers to sign 10-year contracts so their acreage is taxed as agricultural land rather than at true market value.

In June, legislative budget writers in California recommended a one month suspension of the reimbursements paid to counties for lost tax revenues due to the California Land Conservation Act. But one month later, Governor Schwarzenegger "terminated" the program for one year in hopes of shoring up California's cavernous $26.3 billion deficit.

Edward Thompson, California Director American Farmland Trust: "Increasingly ah the expectation that we can max out on the value of farmland by selling it for development is becoming an untenable, unsocialable ah unrealistic idea. What are we going to do to feed ourselves."

A world with more people and less food is a sobering prospect and often is cited in the debate over urban sprawl. But, according to USDA's Economic Research Service, urban use today comprises only 3 percent of the total land area of the contiguous states, and despite what may seem to be an alarming trend in farmland loss, the United States has an abundance of agricultural lands. USDA goes on to say, there is little evidence to suggest that conversion of farmland to other uses poses any long-term threat to productive capacity.

Professor John Hart, University of Minnesota: " Land is not really needed at the moment. We're producing all the vegetables we can eat. So, we don't have the problem of uh, a shortage of food. The problem of American Agriculture has always been overproduction."


Tags: agriculture California dairy farmers news urban