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California's Central Valley

Tracts Gobble Up US Produce Basket. Orchards giving way to subdivisions as residents flee coast.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 19, 1992


AMERICA'S greatest farm state is paving its fruit-and-vegetable paradise and putting up ... suburbia:

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* On the north side of Fresno, miles of fig orchards along Herndon Ave. are plowed under every day to make way for developments with names like "Ville Capri,Mirage," "Stonebridge" and, ironically, "The Fig Orchard."

* Along the once-rustic perimeter of Modesto - weathervaned barns, split-rail fences, and silos - incongruities clash: Glass-walled health clubs jut into corn fields and almond groves; dental clinics abut animal pens and grazing land; neon pizza signs blink into adjacent farmhouses.

* On Route 99 near Merced, a Gulf-war sized fleet of yellow bulldozers sits poised for projects large and small from Bakersfield to Redding. Following the trend of the 1980s that pumped up the San Joaquin Valley's population 34 percent to 2.7 million, the state which produces half the nation's fruits and vegetables will lose 50,000 farm acres each year of the 1990s to developers.

"California's third shoe has finally dropped," says historian Kevin Starr, who once chronicled the rise of coastal populations north and south to the relative exclusion of the state's agricultural inland. He calls the growing political, social, and economic entity, "California's Third Force."

"We are now witnessing the great offloading of congestion from the coast," says Mr. Starr.

The capital city of what author Gerald Haslam has dubbed "The Other California" is Fresno, whose share of California's 6 million new faces in the 1980s bloated the city by 63 percent. The largest city in America's most productive farm county, Fresno also has become one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation [see chart]. With tract housing growing in every direction from a decaying downtown, the city now covers 100 square miles with 370,000 people.

"We are the hot-growth spot in California," says Fresno Mayor Karin Humphries from her days-old office in the new, $30 million glass-and-steel City Hall downtown. "But growth means pressure on quality of life," she adds, ticking off the growing challenges of congestion, crime, air and water quality, affordable housing, transportation, and sewage. The list is the same in Modesto - where the population grew 60 percent in the 1980s as well - and for the nearby cities of Visalia, Stockton, and Bakersfield.

Smog levels in Fresno county have become among the worst in the nation, with ozone levels exceeding those of New York and Chicago. Researchers at the University of California have shown resulting crop yields diminished by 20 percent. Water and sewer bills being raised, in part to help pay for filtering out such pesticides as DBCP, which has been found in nearly half the county's wells.

"Some days, you just want to pack it in," says Richard Gerringer, president of the Fresno County Farm Bureau and a local grape grower, complaining that the agricultural community is buffeted from all sides. Residents complain of the dust, noise, and smell of the farms that are often separated from housing by no more than a small retaining wall. Blamed by urban California for using 80 percent of the state's water and for polluting food with pesticides, farmers say they have been saddled with so many regul ations that many want to hang it up for good.

"Farmers are rethinking their futures," says Mary Ann Warmerdam, director of Natural Resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF). Last year's record-breaking freeze and the ongoing drought added to growing woes. "They're asking, 'Is this the lifestyle I want to pass to the next generation?' "

Humphries says that the Central Valley's problems are so large that they need to be dealt with on a regional basis. A new, eight-county air-quality board is starting to help, but its structure is not as powerful as local cities need, she says.

State and federal help has fallen precipitously over the same period. The new administration of Gov. Pete Wilson (R) has made growth issues a priority, but promised proposals from his State Office of Planning and Research have not materialized.