Speakers discuss how to conserve state's farmland

Issue Date: August 7, 2013
By Steve Adler

"If ag land is lost, there is a 99 percent chance that it will stay lost."

That comment by California Secretary of Natural Resources John Laird summed up the concerns of attendees at a statewide conference on farmland conservation. The event, co-sponsored by the Napa County Farm Bureau and the American Farmland Trust, drew 200 people to Napa last week on the eve of the county Farm Bureau's 100th annual dinner.

Fourth-generation Yolo County farmer Richard Rominger told the conference that farmland protection "is one of the critical things upon which future generations will judge us."

"We have to think and plan long term. What do we want California to look like 50 years from now, 500 years from now? As a result of this conference, I trust that each of us will leave here with a renewed commitment to ag-land preservation," said Rominger, who serves on the American Farmland Trust board of directors and is a former director of the California Department of Food and Agriculture and deputy secretary of the U. S. Department of Agriculture.

California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger agreed with Rominger's comments about the importance of protecting California's unique farmland, and went on emphasize that farmland without a farmer is just land.

"It's important that farmers have access to a reliable water supply and are not unduly exposed to onerous regulations that can cause farmers to convert their land to other uses due to their exasperation from dealing with burdensome regulations," Wenger said.

Edward Thompson, California director for the American Farmland Trust, said the conversion of farmland to other uses is trending upward.

"One of the most troubling aspects is that prime farmland is the land that is being lost at the greatest percentage. We are developing this land very inefficiently," he said.

Thompson also addressed California's water crisis, noting the intense competition for that limited resource.

"We need to solve our water issues. When we talk about farmland preservation, we need to protect the farm water supply. Where are the developers going to get the land that they desire? They are going to go after the farmland that has the water," he said.

Craig McNamara, president of the State Board of Food and Agriculture and a Yolo County farmer, said farmers and environmentalists need to be able to adapt to changes, but that change must only come about in a way that preserves farmland.

Napa County has been in the forefront of farmland preservation, according to Napa County winegrape grower Volker Eisele, who spoke as representative of the county Farm Bureau. Eisele said the county has a strong foundation in farmland protection, dating back to the creation of the Williamson Act farmland-conservation program in 1965 and the adoption of an agricultural preserve by the county board of supervisors in 1968.

Of Napa County's total land area, 95 percent is protected by agricultural resources, agricultural watershed or open space designations, he said.

Despite the county's successes in farmland conservation, challenges remain, Eisele said, many of which need to be addressed at the state level.

Eisele was very critical of Local Agency Formation Commissions, or LAFCOs, which in each county are responsible for reviewing and approving proposed jurisdictional boundary changes, including annexations and detachments of territory to and/or from cities.

"I believe that LAFCO is out of control and we need to change that in Sacramento," he said.

Eisele also called for reform of policies for antiquated subdivisions and certificates of compliance to reduce developments on farmland, and the restructuring of the state housing mandate process to revitalize city centers while at the same time protecting farmland and watersheds.

"Bold and innovative thinking and strong leadership are needed to ensure farmland preservation for many future generations," he said.

In his keynote address, Laird agreed with earlier presenters that farmland conservation is under severe challenge.

"You need to educate the public, you need to educate the Legislature, you need to build a coalition and move ahead, because this is something that is going to be a legacy for this state," he said. "For the people who live here, it will make a difference in their quality of life."

Laird said greater emphasis needs to be placed on urban infill rather than developing prime farmland.

"We need to try to guide a lot of future development to infill rather than figuring out how to build highways for people to get from Manteca to San Jose as they move farther out from urban areas," he said. "A lot of the declining school districts are in places where urban infill would bring students back."

It is important for those in agriculture to remain involved in conveying their concerns to elected officials who are making the decisions relating to farmland conservation, Laird said, reflecting back on his time in the state Assembly.

"Other than the 175 days that we were in session, I would meet with people. I might be at some hearing the next year and something would come up that I learned about by being on a farm that would resonate and I could draw on this practical experience at that hearing," he said.

During her remarks, California Secretary of Food and Agriculture Karen Ross put things into perspective: "What would America eat without California? Every person who is lucky enough to have three meals a day has a stake in farmland preservation."

(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at sadler@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.