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California's Breadbasket Bites Back

Rising above the quilt of wheat, corn, and almond fields, the tell-tale ring of ruddy haze conveys the story: Growing pollution and development are threatening America's most diverse and productive farmland.

From Redding in the north to Bakersfield 450 miles south, it used to be a clear, 50-mile vista from the Sierra Nevadas across the Central Valley to the coastal ranges. But the valley now often resembles a giant bathtub of brown soup worthy of the skies over Los Angeles.

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The sight owes partly to dust from tractors, mist from fertilizers, and pesticides that help grow half the nation's produce. But farmers say most of the smog is from people moving in - 1.8 million since 1982, taking 150,000 acres of farmland out of production. A tripling of population in 18 counties by 2040 could consume another million acres and remake America's breadbasket in the image of congested cities to the north and south.

"Our nation's premier farming area is being needlessly lost to poorly planned growth," says Jack Pandol, head of a coalition representing most of the valley's 40,000 farmers. Today, his coalition is singling out rapid urban development as a serious threat to the nation's foremost farming region and is proposing 10 sweeping measures to safeguard the area's agricultural economy and resources.

"We would never allow our national parks, our coal or oil reserves, our best and most-productive plants and factories, or other strategic national resources to be overrun in this fashion," says Mr. Pandol. Six of the nation's top 10 agricultural counties are in the Central Valley, producing more than 250 commodities and $16 billion of the state's $24.5 billion farm crop. "Why then are we permitting it to happen to the nation's most-productive food factory?" he asks.

Formed nearly two years ago, the Agricultural Task Force for Resource Conservation and Economic Growth in the Central Valley has brought federal, state, and local government officials to the same table with environmental groups, real estate brokers, and the agriculture industry. Members include most of the top agriculture groups in the state, including the California Farm Bureau Federation, the California Association of Farm Managers, and leading ranchers.

"We simply felt that it was time for agriculture to speak for itself out of some kind of consensus," says Mike Chrisman, vice chairman of the group. "We feel this is a crucial turning point for growth issues in the Central Valley."

Farmers' rights

Among the group's recommendations is the simple, formal recognition that agriculture is a legitimate and necessary land use that contributes to the local, state, and national economies and is not merely a way station for urban development.

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The group also wants to require buffers on newly created urban edges in cities and unincorporated urban areas. It would strengthen "right to farm" laws, too. Some counties have instituted such laws - which mandate that new residents sign disclosure notices that they're aware of noise, dust, insects, animals - while others have not.

"People pour in here because they want the rural life, clean air, sweeping views and don't realize by their very coming they threaten the way of life that maintains that setting," says Judy Freitas, a planning commissioner in Kings County and fourth-generation farmer. "There needs to be some serious consciousness-raising."

Many-pronged strategy

Other principles include ensuring that farmers get easy and cheap access to water; forcing developers to find new water before their developments are approved; standardizing across each county the plans and incentives to limit growth to cities; and expanding California law to allow more analysis of the potential environmental impact of development.

The task force also wants cities to corral growth within their own boundaries - rather than continuing to sprawl onto farmland.

The task force's plan "is a very important recognition that we in America have a frontier mentality to just push outward if it is possible, rather than upward," says Marc Reisner, an author and leading authority on water and farm issues in the West. "European cities have recognized the strategic importance of their own farm industries and have developed an island mentality instead. We should learn from this."

Indeed, some see national security at stake. "Demands for food are only going to grow globally, and such a comparable region for productivity is not going to be available," says Tim Warman, vice president for programs at American Farmland Trust in Washington. "The thought that we can continue to replenish domestic food sources with imported food from overseas is extremely shortsighted."

But even before release of the recommendations, developer groups have already taken issue with some of the task-force premises, although they welcome fresh dialogue.

"It is the demand of people who want to live in these areas with inexpensive, affordable housing and cannot find it elsewhere that is driving this," says Rex Hime, president of California Business Properties Association.

Squeezed out of Bay Area

He notes that environmental groups in the San Francisco Bay region have helped push development in the Central Valley by closing off 600,000 acres in the Bay Area over recent years to development. Demand for housing pushes up real estate value, luring farmers to sell their land and local governments to support such sales to attract higher tax revenue. "There is plenty of land for farms as well as schools, homes, and shopping centers," says Mr. Hime.

Some environmental groups are questioning key task-force recommendations. "We support the goal of ending sprawl in the Central Valley," says the National Resource Defense Council's Ronnie Cohen, a policy analyst. "But we would urge them to focus on besides ones that justify additional water to farms instead of environmental and industrial uses."

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