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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
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.