Perceptions and Realities about Farmland Conversion

In California, as in many other states, the public policy debate over con-version of farmland to urban uses will continue, and probably intensify, in the 21st century. Proposed approaches depend, as always, on informed attitudes and expectations by decision-makers and the public.

“As we develop national policies designed to recognize the full value of agricultural land, it is vital to clarify the facts about the conversion process.” That quote is from AIC testimony before the Federal Commission on 21st Century Production Agriculture. The Commission is assessing impacts of the 1996 Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act (FAIR) and considering proposed changes when FAIR expires in 2002. In their presentation to the Commission during its recent Fresno hearings, the authors of the paper-Al Sokolow, Dan Sumner, and Nick Kuminoff-pointed out four common misperceptions in the debate over farmland conversion. (Sokolow is associate AIC director for rural-urban issues, Sumner is director, and Kuminoff is a postgraduate research assistant.)

In more than half a century between 1940 and 1997, total agricultural land in California was reduced 9.3%, from 30.5 million acres to 27.7 million. (Meanwhile agricultural production went up substantially due to more efficient use of land and water, and a shift to higher-value crops.) Between 1986 and 1996, less than 2% of the state’s agricultural base-about 232,000 acres-was converted to urban uses. These actual rates of loss may be smaller than the common impression, but they are significant and they have generated a fruitful public policy debate. In that debate, however, perceptions developed that need to be clarified as Californians face similar land-use issues in a new century.

One is the belief that most farmers have, or soon will have, a chance to sell their land to urban developers and that many of them will do so. The reality is that relatively few farmers will ever have that option. For each, the process depends on urbanization rates and patterns, and on local government land-use policies. In any case, relatively little California farmland is located close to city fringes or other urban edges where conversion is most likely.

Second, there is the idea that urban sprawl is likely to literally pave over California’s farmland. At anything like recent conversion rates, urban land, which occupies about 3% of California’s landmass, would not overtake agriculture’s 28% for a very long time. Even if California’s population doubles by the mid-21st century, as some predict, at current density levels urban areas would increase to 6% of the state’s landmass and agriculture would represent about 24%. Of course, this fact does not reduce the tension in areas where urban communities border farmland, and does not mean that some prime cropland will not be lost.

A third misperception is the view that urbanization is a threat to California’s ability to feed itself. However, California food consumption depends greatly on imports from other states and countries, while much of its agricultural production is shipped elsewhere. Thus, California’s major role is as a participant in national and international food markets-and that is where any large decrease in California’s production of key horticultural crops would be felt. Moreover, California produces more food today than ever, despite the decline in its agricultural land base. This state’s farm productivity index (aggregate farm output divided by aggregate farm input) more than doubled between 1949 and 1991.

Fourth, there is the perception that government can prevent excessive farmland conversion by subsidizing agricultural production through price supports or related means. However, the difference in the price per acre between farmland for crop production and farmland for development is almost always so great that raising commodity prices to persuade farmers not to sell is simply not feasible. A recent Ventura County study found that the market value of agricultural land inside a city’s LAFCO (Local Agency Formation Commission)-designated sphere of influence was from 25% to 78% higher than land immediately outside the sphere.

What, then, are the key issues in the farmland conversion debate? They are complex and they relate largely to environment and quality of life at the community level. To put it simply: Although farmers and urbanites often make uneasy neighbors, many people would prefer to live where they can enjoy farmland and open space rather than endless suburbs. Agricultural land also doubles as wildlife habitat and watershed. These issues and others involving farmland conversion, as explored during the Fresno hearings, will be detailed in an upcoming AIC Issues Brief.

Two relevant points:

  • Although the years of controversy over land use-in fact, probably because of them-most local governments in California do a better job in protecting farmland than public jurisdictions elsewhere in the nation.
  • The “edge problem” of relations between farmers and their urban neighbors probably has more serious consequences for agricultural production in California than the farmland conversion rate.

Although loss of total food and fiber output is not an immediate threat, urban expansion -and the threat of urban sprawl-onto farmland such as California’s Central Valley demands our attention. In the 21st century we need to work to ensure a reasonable balance between farm and urban land that reflects the full economic, environmental, and social value of land use.

Biotechnology and the World’s Poor

The roles of modern biotechnology in the struggle against world hunger will be Per Pinstrup-Andersen’s topic February 4 on the Davis campus. Dr. Pinstrup-Andersen, director of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), is an internationally-known authority on the economics of food security, agricultural research and technological change, and related policy. He will speak from 11 am to 12:30 PM at the UC Davis University Club.

The lecture is one in the distinguished speaker series jointly sponsored by the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, the UC Agricultural Issues Center, and the Institute of Governmental Affairs.

Bruce Gardner Guest Speaker

On October 26, 1999 the Agricultural Issues Center had the pleasure of hosting a dinner for a small group of board members and friends to hear the thoughts of Professor Bruce Gardner on the topic, “The History and Future of Growth of American Agriculture.” Gardner is the president-elect and a Fellow of the American Agricultural Economics Association, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Agriculture and the leading scholar of U.S. farm policy. He clarified trends in agricultural productivity and suggested that continuing productivity growth, which is based on investments in research, would underlie continued output growth of the sector.

He noted the rapid expansion of output per farm and the role of exports in maintaining farm income. Though his remarks centered on longer term national trends and underlying forces, Gardner responded to questions on the current farm price and income situation and on California-specific commodity issues.