Fresno County leaders are trying to salvage a farmland protection plan that has drawn resistance from at least one small city and, ironically, from some farmers as well.-- Fresno Bee, 3-6-10


One reason discriminating newspaper editors don't like references to irony is that they frequently serve to conceal rather than reveal the true story. The story below is a good example. Nor is it "ironic" that the newspaper actually missed the entire story.
No Valley farmer in right mind and body today, particularly if the farm lies near anything remotely resembling a municipal corporation, can fail to hope, and therefore to act on that hope, that the farm's value lies more in its speculative real estate value than in what it produces in the way of agricultural commodities. Given that we are now dealing with a mature agricultural system that includes many family partners and inheritors who do not farm the land, the situation is even more obvious: it is almost always more conducive to family relations to sell the farm and divide up the money than it is to plan for another generation of farmers. Add to the inheritance situation the now-perpetual water anxiety -- the thought that the water could be removed by a conspiracy of remote, diabolical forces not in the pay of agribusiness  -- and the land would return to native alkali, sagebrush, coyotes and roadrunners and sell for a fraction of its agricultural value without a supply of surface water to mix with its un-sweet groundwater.
The cities must try to grow. After all, as a wise city councilman once said: "Cities grow; counties don't."  Farmers must realize the maximum profit from the speculative real estate value of their property. After all, they are giving up their sacred function of feeding the nation, if the nation does not develop terminal constipation from a diet of commodity cheese and almonds, particularly at a time when the prices for both are under their costs of production. Of course there is also iceberg lettuce, an excellent source of rehydration at 95-percent water.Iceberg lettuce growers make a profit at least a third of the time. Nonetheless, a quantity of fresh fruit can clear the system, when added to the hamburger from dairy cows that have failed to make the production cut or are -- although we do not talk about this -- perhaps a little off their feed, a little sick, cows that go to the auction yard from dairies that have not made a break-even price for milk in more than a year.
With business prospects like this, why on earth would farmers even consider the speculative real estate value of their land?
Nevertheless, this is faith-based journalism, resting on the unsupported assumption that real estate prices will rise again from the ashes of the busted speculative bubble. Outside the newsroom, in the great, wide world, another story entirely is unfolding.
Badlands Journal editorial board
Fresno Bee
Fresno Co. farmland plan draws critics
Urbanites, farmers find fault with sprawl limits, ag protection...Russell Clemings

Fresno County leaders are trying to salvage a farmland protection plan that has drawn resistance from at least one small city and, ironically, from some farmers as well.
The plan calls for tighter limits on urban sprawl and better protection for the most valuable farmland. But at least a few farmers near growing cities are not happy about the proposed sprawl limits.
They have told a consultant for the plan's sponsor, the Council of Fresno County Governments, that by reducing the urban development potential of their land, the plan could cut its value.
"Everybody wants farmland conservation so long as it doesn't interfere with their private property rights," said the consultant, Gary Manross, who has been hired by the council to try to reconcile the competing interests.
Officials at the council admit they were taken aback by the opposition.
"We thought we had it covered pretty well," said the council's executive director, Tony Boren. Farm interests were seated on a committee that developed the plan, he said.
As initially proposed early last year, the Model Farmland Conservation Program would have placed much of southeastern Fresno County -- which the report called a "golden triangle" of prime farmland -- off limits to further urban development.
The intent was to slow urban sprawl. Some 25,000 acres of the county's farmland were paved over between 1990 and 2006; the urbanized area grew to more than 115,000 acres in that time.
But the designation would have a direct effect on cities within the triangle.
Selma officials haven't taken an official position on the plan but "we did have reservations about it," City Manager D-B Heusser said.
"We're a growth-oriented city and we don't like other people directing us," he said.
Farming interests, meanwhile, objected on grounds that ranged from water politics to a fear that curbing urban growth would reduce values for farmland lying near cities. The disputes show just how difficult it can be to implement a widely admired concept like farmland conservation when there are enough details to draw opposition.
"Farmland conservation is motherhood and apple pie, but the minute you do it you're restricting land use," Manross said.
Ed Thompson, California director for the American Farmland Trust, was an author of the report and said he, too, was surprised by the blowback.
"It turns out I don't think we had some of the people around the table that needed to be there," he said.
The objections from farming interests came from several directions.
Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, said one concern was that restricting urban growth might place densely populated cities right next to intensely farmed agricultural land. That, he said, could increase conflicts over things like noise, odors and pesticide use.
"There needs to be some kind of mitigation" for such conflicts, he said. That could take the form of buffer strips within the city spheres of influence -- zones legally designated for future development and annexation.
Manross said the effect on land values was an issue raised in his private discussions with farmers and other interested parties. Typically, values rise when farmland is taken into a city's sphere of influence and becomes eligible for development. That can have a direct effect on a farmer's net worth.
"The only asset many of these people have is their land," Manross said.
Beyond that, Thompson said some growers in the county's western reaches were upset that their land was, for the most part, ranked as less valuable than most of the southeastern county.
The reason for that ranking, Thompson said, was the west side's less reliable water supply. But growers worried that the designation of their land as less valuable could give policymakers an excuse to reduce supplies even further, he said.
The report called for the two most valuable categories of land to be placed into a "strategic agricultural reserve" totaling 559,000 acres. Within that reserve, development would be banned unless there were no reasonable alternative, like highway or transit routes.
In addition, cities would be restricted from adding land to their spheres of influence unless they can show that their current spheres have less than a 20-year supply of buildable land.
Whatever program is implemented, if any, will require review by the county Board of Supervisors first, Boren said. Before that, the divergent sides of the debate will strive to reach an agreement that will allow the program to move forward, he said.
Manross said getting to that point "won't be easy. How do you find that center ground?" But Boren said he was confident that will happen: "We think in the next couple of months we'll have a consensus."