Conserving Ag Land: Funding the Williamson Act

I grew up on a small “ranch” in Penngrove, Sonoma County, that had two houses for people and about a dozen houses for chickens—over the years, family farming in the poultry industry became less and less profitable and my father got out of the chicken business altogether in the late 1960s. Since then the chicken houses are all gone and another house—for people—has been added to the top half of the five acres where I grew up. It’s a metaphor, albeit on a small scale, for the loss of agricultural land that is happening all over California.

I won’t go into a lot of statistics here, but California, the bread basket that feeds our state, much of the nation and a sizeable part of the world, is losing agricultural land to a variety of other uses. People need houses, and places to do business. People need cleaner sources of energy, like solar and wind. And people also need to preserve and in some cases restore land to its natural state to provide habitat for fish, birds, trees and other wildlife. These are important uses of California’s open spaces.

But these, and other uses, are increasingly putting pressure on land that is currently producing food. And let’s face it— people also need to eat. Here in California and all over the world California-grown rice, nuts, fruit, vegetables and wine provide everything from basic staples that keep people alive, to ingredients that fuel celebrity chef creativity for the finest cuisine.

So—how do we achieve what appear to be competing goals? How do we preserve California’s rich agricultural heritage and continue feeding the world, while also recognizing that there are many other valid uses for California’s finite expanses of open land? It isn’t going to be easy. But we can start by funding the Williamson Act—a California law that is supposed to help struggling farmers make a buck in the lean years so they can keep their land in production.

The Act, like many state programs, has been drastically cut in the past few bad economic years, but with the economy on the rebound, now is the time to put a higher priority on funding it. Too often, California farmland is put up on the block simply because of economics. If funded, the Williamson Act will allow the people directly involved in land-use decisions to make those determinations based on the best use of a specific plot of land, as opposed to what has become available due to the variable economics of farming.

To be honest, I don’t think the Williamson Act could have kept the five-acre chicken ranch where I grew up in production. But there are a lot of acres at similar risk up and down the state. The people farming those acres deserve the chance to keep them in production, and the Williamson Act provides that opportunity.

About: Gregg Fishman:
Gregg Fishman is the Communications Coordinator for the California State Association of Counties.

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