Farmers, environmentalists and local government officials say more swaths of California's best agricultural land could be lost to housing tracts and strip malls if the state doesn't restore funding for its flagship farmland conservation program.
The state had been spending nearly $38 million a year to protect about 16 million acres, but it mostly eliminated that funding starting two years ago because of budget problems. While other states have farmland preservation programs, the issue is more pressing in California because it's the nation's largest food producer and agricultural land is being lost an a staggering rate - an average of 50,000 acres a year.
Rapid population growth and high housing prices in major cities have created intense pressure to build.
"California would look a lot different today without having these millions of acres restricted to agriculture," said John Gamper, director of taxation and land use for the California Farm Bureau Federation. "It helps keep cities compact and prevents leap frog development."
The state had been providing money to counties through a 46-year-old program known as the Williamson Act, and in turn, counties gave tax breaks to land owners who agreed to keep farming for a decade or more. But the state reduced the program's funding by 10 percent in the 2008 budget year and cut all but $1,000 for it in 2009. The current budget originally included $10 million for the program, but Gov. Jerry Brown eliminated that last month.
As negotiations on the 2011 budget continue, there's little expectation the program will receive much, if anything.
Some counties had been continuing the program themselves while they waited to see what the state would do. But one major agricultural county, Imperial County, has already opted out of the program - and others are considering doing so.
The program boosts the state's agriculture industry, which generates about $35 billion in sales each year, by reducing farmers' costs and helping them remain profitable. Landowners are taxed on their property's agricultural value, not its free market value. Farmers save an estimated 20 percent to 75 percent their annual property taxes, with prime farmland getting the bigger breaks.
Farmers said at best, elimination of the program would force them to pass their higher costs on to consumers, affecting fruit and vegetable prices. At worst, those already operating on the edge would be forced to quit.
"People would go out of business. Some folks would not be able to withstand that," said Ross Borba Jr., who grows tomatoes, cotton and almonds on 4,000 acres in Riverdale with his brother. His land is enrolled in the program.
Environmental groups say the program is not just about farming. The Williamson Act also protects open spaces from urban sprawl, helps mitigate global warming and protects endangered species habitat and watersheds.
But officials in cash-strapped counties said they're not sure they could afford the program without state support. A survey done last year by the California State Association of Counties found most counties were considering ending farmers' conservation contracts. Nine counties have stopped accepting new applicants, including Fresno, where the county seat's population jumped 15 percent in the past decade to 500,000 and sprawl is a growing problem.
"If it's lost, that's money that helps support public safety, the sheriff's department and probation," said John Navarrette, Fresno County's administrative officer.
Fresno County received the largest portion of Williamson Act funding, $5 million for tax breaks on 1.5 million acres. County officials are waiting to see what happens to a bill that would let them reduce contracts to nine years and raise participants' taxes some, Navarrette said. They have until December to decide whether to keep the program going at higher tax rates or terminate it completely, he said.
Not everyone agrees the Williamson Act is worth saving. A report by the nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst's Office suggested the program should be phased out over 10 years, due to high costs and an inherent weakness. The report found the state hadn't been able to determine which land was at risk and handed out tax breaks for some properties that would never have been developed anyway.
The report also found that the program didn't stop development in the long run, because landowners could cancel their contracts, and developers often paid the hefty fine. Farmers also could just not renew.
"If it pays you $10,000 per acre to grow tomatoes, but $100,000 per acre to build a shopping center, then the Williamson Act is not going to stop you from selling," said Daniel Sumner, a agriculture professor at the University of California, Davis. "The shopping center always wins."