Farmland Protection Gets Much-needed Attention at Napa Conference
Of all the issues facing California, farmland conservation doesn’t get a lot of attention. But when you consider the implications for our food supply and the environment in general, maybe it should be a little higher on the priority list. I’m happy to report there are several groups of people who agree.
Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a one-day conference co-sponsored by the American Farmland Trust and the Napa County Farm Bureau in Napa, titled “California Farmland Protection: Reality or Wishful Thinking?” The lineup of speakers was headlined by California Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger, Secretary of Food & Agriculture Karen Ross, Secretary of Natural Resources John Laird, Senator Lois Wolk and Assembly Member Susan Talamantes Eggman. The four plenary sessions included representatives from the Department of Conservation, local government, land trusts, LAFCO’s, COGs and academia. They presented a wide range of information regarding the importance and status of the state’s farmland, preservation successes, exemplary planning programs and policies, and recommendations for protecting farmland and encouraging effective local programs.
The attendance alone clearly demonstrated, at least to me, that there is significant support for making farmland protection a reality in California. Speakers as part of their presentations, and attendees during Q&A, consistently noted the importance of maintaining California agriculture as an essential part of the state’s economy and environment. And a majority of the speakers emphasized the success of agricultural land conservation tools such as conservation easements, local agricultural land preservation policies and the Williamson Act! Yes, overwhelming support for the Act was expressed several times throughout the day, with several speakers noting the need for the state to fund the Act’s subvention program. What better way to celebrate the Act’s 50th anniversary in 2015 than funding the subventions!
In addition to promoting the on-going use of the existing conservation tools, conference speakers also recommended:
- Connecting residents with the agricultural roots and procedures that produce their foods to demonstrate the importance of preserving agricultural lands.
- Adoption of better local land-use policies to reflect conservation principles to prevent even greater losses of farmland.
- Reduce the conversion of farmland to urban development to ameliorate the impact of climate change.
- New accounting methods to better show the value of preservation, looking toward the true environmental benefits of keeping development at bay.
- Better communication between state agencies with differing mandates (i.e. agricultural/open space preservation versus housing requirements).
- Development of adequate supply of affordable water to meet agriculture’s future needs.
- Mandatory mitigation of farmland development.
While much of the data presented was discouraging…California is losing 30,000 acres of agricultural land a year to development…there was an undercurrent of optimism. Next steps will no doubt involve further dialogue between policymakers at the state and local level, agricultural interests, environmentalists and the building community. Hopefully, it isn’t wishful thinking that these discussions will result in new and/or improved policies and programs that will ensure the long-term viability of California agriculture.
Karen Keene is CSAC's Senior Legislative Representative for Agriculture and Natural Resources and Deputy Director of Federal Affairs. She can be reached at kkeene.at.counties.org.
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