Suburbia Consumes California's Fruit Basket to the World

Homes are replacing farmland at a rate of 100,000 acres a year.

America's most productive farm state is fast approaching a vexing ultimatum: Carrots or condominiums?

Put another way: The farmers that produce half the nation's vegetables and fruits are looking for ways to halt the harvest of California's newest bumper crop - people - and the encroachment of runaway development into their cropland.

At the rate of 100,000 acres a year, celery fields are morphing into suburbia. Pastures are being paved into parking lots. With new projections that the state's population will increase 18 million by 2025, urgency is growing to find long-term solutions to the development pressure that is covering the country's most bountiful soil.

"If [California] is serious about protecting its agricultural abundance and diversity, [they] have got to do something now or risk the danger of losing an irreplaceable resource forever," says Mark Reisner, author of "Cadillac Desert" and a leading authority on water issues in the American West. "Without new land-protection strategies, what happened in the Los Angeles basin and in what became Silicon Valley will be repeated again and again."

Much of the state's $24 billion agricultural industry includes crops that cannot be grown elsewhere in the United States. California's Mediterranean climate means that farmers here can get three to four harvests a year.

Farmers who ply the fertile fields of Iowa, by contrast, only grow one to two crops a season. Artichokes, almonds, walnuts, and olives are among the foods harvested exclusively in the Golden State.

But the pressures on this land are enormous. California's population continues to grow at a road-runner pace, and many people are moving away from the congested coastline toward the vast Central Valley.

Farmers from Modesto to Mexicali, as a result, increasingly face a stark choice: Continue working the land or sell out to developers, many of whom will offer top dollar to put tract homes in a broccoli field.

Let's make a deal

Perhaps understandably, more and more growers are taking the instant cash. This is evidenced by the growing smog, traffic, and other urban problems that are becoming increasingly common in agricultural areas.

The most pressing concern for farmers, though, is water. Because public attitudes have soured to the impact of dams to fisheries, wildlife, river recreation, and aesthetics, almost no water development has occurred here for two decades.

Cities in the dirt

At the same time, cities are making room for 800,000 more residents each year, and recent laws have committed more of the state's water to environmental uses.

Competition for what is left has created uncertainty for thousands of farmers who have long subsisted on tight financial margins. Looking at fragile economic futures clouded by question marks over water availability, more and more farmers are succumbing to the security of cash offered by developers.

"All across the western [Central] Valley we are getting more and more requests for municipal and industrial development every year," says Michael Meyers, a farmer and board member of the San Luis Water District. "Increasing numbers of farmers who aren't doing so well are selling their land to developers because they can't keep their farms going."

One of the principal reasons for this in recent years has been the increased cost of water. Under a 1992 federal law known as the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, the amount of water allotted to agriculture was cut by 800,000 acre-feet. (One acre-foot of water serves a household of four for roughly one year.)

What remains has been doled out at far steeper prices.

"In three years, my water costs increased tenfold, so I had to get out," says Allen Garcia, a Corning-area rice farmer who has abandoned about 400 acres of fields because he could no longer afford to irrigate them. All around his farm, neighbors have switched to crops such as almond trees, which use less water and bring more income.

With such a scenario as backdrop, American Farmland Trust (AFT), a national conservation group, this week released a three-year report laying out solutions and inviting dialogue from the state's urban, environmental, and agricultural communities.

Solving the water 'crisis'

A primary recommendation of the report is that California farmers who agree to protect up to 1,000 acres of their federally irrigated land for a period of 20 to 40 years would receive water at less than half the going rate and even be guaranteed deliveries during droughts. The report also puts on the table the idea of several other combinations of cost-cutting and reliability incentives.

The document will be used in coming months as the centerpiece of formal statewide symposia and conferences. It is also expected to be a catalyst to informal discussion from back rooms to back fences.

"In the face of great insecurity over water for agriculture, this is really a first step in finding ways to increase security or reduce costs," says Ed Thompson, AFT's spokesman.

The proposal, which its authors emphasize is a preliminary document to spark more detailed solutions, is being welcomed with open arms by many farmers.

"It's a brilliant idea that will give many California farmers hope that they can stick with their farms for the long term," says Mr. Garcia. "As an incentive, it has a built-in appeal over policies based on strict rules."

Hold the spigot

But it has been met with similar skepticism by some in the environmental community.

"We feel they are talking about the right problem but the wrong solution," counters Mike Paparian, regional spokesman for the Sierra Club. In coming discussions, he says, "we will want to make sure that they don't succeed in subsidizing water use for those areas which are far from developed areas under the guise of agricultural land preservation."

Whatever way discussions turn, say others, the step of putting far stronger land-protection incentives on the table is a creative way for all sides in a highly combative state to move beyond a current situation of paralysis.

"The AFT is to be congratulated for taking the lead in thinking through an innovative solution," says Greg Thomas, an environmentalist with the National Heritage Institute. "This is a great unmet land-use challenge that takes on the problem of urban sprawl." It "has long suffered at the whim of development entrepreneurs without regard for competing resource values."

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