Conserving farms is good investment

The following opinion piece was printed in the Sac Bee on Oct. 14, 2015. It was written by Rich Rominger, a Yolo County farmer, a former state secretary of food and agriculture and a former deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Rich is a CalCAN farmer advisor and long-time proponent of farmland conservation.

On Oct. 15, the Strategic Growth Council will be discussing draft guidelines for the next funding cycle of the Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation Program.

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By Rich Rominger

Yolo County, where my family has Rich head shotfarmed for five generations, has lost farmland to development, as part of more than 1 million acres of farmland lost in the state in the last 25 years.

Our farmlands are a finite resource; once converted to urban or suburban development, they are lost to agriculture. With that loss, we chip away at our ability to grow food and protect watersheds, open space and wildlife habitat.

We also forever alter our carbon footprint. Thanks to a 2012 study by UC Davis researchers, we know that protecting farmland from development is an important strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The study found that an urban acre in our county emits 70 times more greenhouse gases than an acre of irrigated cropland.

Fortunately, Gov. Jerry Brown and his administration understand the importance of conserving our agricultural lands for all their many benefits, including buffering us against the worst of climate change. Early this year, the Governor’s Strategic Growth Council launched the Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation program to protect farmland, including funding conservation easements with willing landowners to permanently keep their land in agriculture.

The program is part of a larger effort to encourage smart growth in the state, where local governments and developers build the next generation of housing and transit services within our cities and protect our farmland at the urban/suburban edge.

The agricultural lands program started modestly this year. With $5 million in funding, the strategic growth council awarded grants in seven counties to permanently protect a total of about 14,000 acres of farmland from development. The council also awarded five grants to local governments to develop strategies for protecting farmland.

This is a good start, but considering there were applications for 10 times more dollars than what was available, and given the alarming rate of farmland loss, clearly there is an opportunity to do more. Fortunately, the strategic growth council’s budget just increased from $130 million last year to $400 million this year. Thursday, it will decide how much should go to farmland conservation.

This is groundbreaking work, and the council and the Resources Agency, which is in charge of implementing the program, are to be commended for their leadership. No other state in the country has attempted to make linkages between climate protection and farmland conservation, let alone fund it. And the potential for connecting urban smart growth with adjacent farmland conservation is exciting.

Success will depend, in part, on having sufficient funding so the agricultural conservation program doesn’t wither on the vine. The council has the chance to build upon the early momentum by funding it at a level that enables the program to reach its potential.

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