Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Is ‘covering up’ farmland a bad thing? Concerns often penny-wise, pound-foolish

Is ‘covering up’ farmland a bad thing?
Concerns often penny-wise, pound-foolish
By Sam Bhagwat
of the Valley Mirror

In the late 1970’s, during debate over a proposed coal-fired power plant, opponent and then-supervisor Jean Rumiano, voiced a charge that resonated with many locals: the proposed plant would destroy 9,000 acres of rich farmland in Clark’s Valley.

No it wouldn’t, replied then-Willows city councilman Matt Wiest. The appropriate figure, he said, was 3,000 acres. And it was hilly pasture – only moderately good ag land.

The debate highlighted a concern over development that’s popped up over and over again in the last four decades. A proposed development would sit on good ag land, land that could otherwise be profitably used for farming. So farmers and ranchers raise a ruckus, and the project dies, in small or large part due to them.

“The most important thing we have is the production of food and fiber,” says rancher and former supervisor Dave Soeth.

Rancher and former supervisor Dick Mudd recalls his opposition to two major projects.

“Whenever you come and build up coal plants, prisons,” Mr. Mudd said, “a lot of us think, the minute you cover up this property, you better have a darn good reason.

“I think that’s a lot of the thinking, land is irreplaceable.”

Mr. Mudd may be correct, but right now, ag land not isn’t vanishing that quickly. Not here, anyway.

And in almost all cases where building on farmland was a major public concern, the proposed development would have a large economic impact, compared to the amount of farmland being taken out of production.

From 1990 to 2004, only 659 acres of farmland and pasture – slightly over a square mile and less than one-third of one percent of all ag land in the county – was converted to development, according to figures from

In that time, the county’s population grew by at least 2000 people, according to census figures, which probably don’t include illegal immigrants.

Put it this way: in that timeframe, ag land decreased by 0.3 percent, to accommodate a population increase of 8.7 percent. There was a relatively large amount of development, in comparison to the population, in return for tiny decreases in farmland.

A similar pattern is evident when examining the debate over the proposed coal plant.

One of the biggest local concerns was that the plant would have destroyed farmland; while city residents seemed mildly in favor, Glenn County Farm Bureau directors opposed the plant by a vote of 12 to 2.

“The basic theme of the directors was that it wasn’t a bad idea to have the power plant, it was just a bad idea to locate it in an agricultural area,” a Daily Journal article read.

“Already too much farmland is being taken out of production in housing developments, highways, and so forth,” Mr. Mudd said then, explaining his opposition to the plant. “It seems like they always put them on the best land.”

“I wasn’t too happy about solid disposal waste taking up land good for grazing,” Mr. Soeth, a supervisor then, recalls now.

Let’s take a look at the numbers.

The coal plant would have sat upon 2600 to 8400 acres of grazing land. That’s about 1.3 to 4 percent of all ag-land in the county, today and then.

In return, it would have created jobs for about 400 to 500 people. That’s about one-third as many people as all county farms employ in the off-season, according to state labor statistics.

Moreover, the project would have doubled the county’s tax rolls.

So: even if preserving ag land is your goal, this development would have decreased ag land by a little. But it would have boosted the local economy a lot.

And since Mr. Mudd, quoted at the beginning of this article, mentions prisons: High Desert State Prison in Susanville covers 325 acres and employs 1500 people.

So, a prison creates at least 30 times as many jobs as a coal plant for each acre of ag land covered up.

One reason usually given for opposing development is just that farms don’t make good neighbors with residential, commercial, or industrial development.

“There are concrete examples of people run out of business” in agriculture when residential neighbors move nearby, former supervisor Dave Soeth says.

Say there’s a feedlot, and neighbors start complaining about people cranking up engines early in the morning, he says.

He refers to past proposed RV park, restaurant, and motel planned for Norman Road and I-5.

The project, killed by neighboring rice farmers, would have employed 30 people and been worth twice as much as the assessed value of all land in a one-mile radius.

But “when we start leapfrogging development, putting it nine miles out of town,” that’s what happens to the neighbors, Mr. Soeth says.

“These things don’t mix,” observes long-time farm supervisor Keith Hansen.

But the overriding concern to preserve farmland seems to come up even when planned developments are right next to town.

In April 1981 meeting, two supervisors responded to local real estate man Dave McGarr’s complaint that industrial growth in Willows has been inhibited because “there is no industrial ground to go to.”

“The problem I always have,” then-supervisor Jean Rumiano replied, “is having good agricultural land right up to the boundaries of Willows.”

“I think industrial growth should go in the north end of the county,” then-and-now supervisor Keith Hansen added.

That, even though, said city chamber of commerce Henry James, Willows is the only city north of Woodland with an east-to-west railroad spur. That’s a prime consideration in industrial development, Mr. James said then.

Or consider the strange concerns of two supervisors who helped kill a proposed dense, 1100-person, mobile home park on 104 acres of farmland near Artois:

“My concern has been not to use good agricultural land at all,” Ms. Rumiano put forth a couple months afterwards. “I hate to build anything on it.”

At the time, Ms. Rumiano said that since the land was not good class I soil she “felt better” about using it, a sentiment seconded by Keith Hansen.

But the question remains: for the number of homes and amount of land, why does covering up farmland matter at all?

Let’s put the numbers in perspective: the project would create homes for 3 percent of the county’s population, by using 0.05 percent of the county’s farmland.

Priorities, anyone?

Other arguments for preserving ag land are economic and aesthetic.

“Do you know where new wealth comes from?” asks fellow rancher and former supervisor Dave Soeth. “It comes from the ground. You plant a seed, you breed a sheep, a cow.”

That, he said, is new wealth.

And there are other forms of new wealth, any economic would say. The Johns-Manville fiberglass plant creates new wealth, making an in-demand finished project from raw material.

Or an example Mr. Soeth gives, an accomplishment of his years as a supervisor that he’s proud of: getting machines for the road department “so that one person could do what two people could do before.”

And in producing food, land is not, as Mr. Mudd puts it, “irreplaceable.” In that function, it is eminently replaceable, replaceable with more machines and better technology.

Norman Borlaug, the agriculturalist largely responsible for the Green Revolution –
1960’s and 70’s leaps in third-world farm output – gave some productivity figures in a 2000 magazine interview.

“In 1960, the production of the 17 most important food, feed, and fiber crops – virtually all of the important crops grown in the U.S. at that time and still grown today – was 252 million tons. By 1990, it had more than doubled, to 596 million tons, and was produced on 25 million fewer acres than were cultivated in 1960.”

“If we had tried to produce the harvest of 1990 with the technology of 1960, we would have had to have increased the cultivated area by another 177 million hectares, about 460 million more acres of land of the same quality – which we didn't have, and so it would have been much more.”

Certainly, land-as-open-space is not replaceable.

“I need my open space,” says Mr. Soeth, smiling but earnest. “When I want to open my window and shoot ground squirrels, I can open my window and shoot ground squirrels.”

Some other benefits – on the national policy level – are argued by UC-Davis ag economist Al Sokolow: food security, farmland as a watershed, protecting endangered species, orchards sucking up global warming gases.

The sentiment to preserve farmland has been around for a while, Dr. Sokolow says.

You can go back to 1965, he says, when the Williamson Act, providing tax breaks for keeping farmland agricultural, was passed.

“So it's not new. And probably that sentiment is more widely held these days than 30 or 40 years ago.”

”I don't think anyone would argue that it's wrong to protect as much farmland as possible. It's a general aspect of consensus.”

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