E-mail this article to
yourself or a friend.
Enter address:


Farmers unite to preserve their fields

(Monday, May 19, 2003 -- CropChoice news) --

Rene Sanchez, Washington Post, 05/18/03: MADERA, Calif. -- The only way of life that Denis Prosperi and his ancestors here have ever known is disappearing. He hears the same unsettling news all the time. Another farmer gives up and cashes out. And more rooftops start rising up in place of the great multitude of crops that have long swept across and sustained this land.

Prosperi figured that might be his fate, too. But he is busy this spring tending to fields of almonds and grapes, same as ever. So are all of his neighbors. No one is budging from his farm -- for good.

"We couldn't stop what's happening unless we acted collectively," Prosperi said one recent afternoon as he looked out past his crops at a landscape lined with newly built neighborhoods. "And we had a chance to do it now, or never."

The rare and momentous stand they all are making against development in this dusty farm town is not just rippling across California's vast San Joaquin Valley, which is one of the world's largest and most productive agricultural regions. It is catching the attention of farmers nationwide who are fighting losing battles against urban sprawl.

The "Madera Eight," as Prosperi and his neighbors are commonly known these days, are fast becoming farming folk heroes.

What they did after nearly three years of agonizing debate and compromise over each other's dinner tables is unique in the West, agricultural officials say, and has been tried only a few times elsewhere.

When developers came knocking with the promise of fat checks, they all refused the offers at the same time, then permanently relinquished any right they had to convert the farmland to any other use. They even sacrificed some of their land's value to help each other out. And the 440 acres that they chose to preserve -- which they are calling the nation's first "farmland security perimeter" -- will effectively block development on about 40,000 other acres nearby that also are coveted by home builders.

"They have drawn a line in the dirt," said Robyn Miller, a spokeswoman for the American Farmland Trust, a national group that works to conserve agricultural land.

Closing the deal felt like a race against time. Across the country, at an accelerating pace, highly valued fields where crops have been sown for generations are being stripped and paved to make way for suburbs and shopping malls. About 6 million acres of farmland have been developed over the past decade, federal agricultural officials say, far more than in the 1980s.

States such as Texas, Ohio and Georgia each have had more than 150,000 acres of agricultural land consumed in recent years by development that is being stoked both by population growth and the fervent desire that many homeowners now have for more space -- average property lot sizes nationally have doubled in the past two decades.

Some states that see no end to the trend are scrambling to counter it. In Virginia, which expects ownership of nearly 70 percent of its farms to change hands over the next 15 years, a growing number of counties are creating their first farmland conservation programs. Maryland is considered one of the nation's leaders in preserving open space.

Few places are more threatened by the loss of farmland than California's San Joaquin Valley, a 300-mile corridor between Sacramento and Bakersfield that is home to about 38,000 farms and six of the nation's 10 most productive agricultural counties.

The valley also is one of the fastest-growing regions in the West. It has added nearly a half-million residents over the past decade and is bracing for the arrival of twice as many more in the coming years because so many people can no longer afford to live near the California coast.

Madera, which is about 20 miles north of Fresno, is a magnet in the migration. Open land here is cheap and plentiful. Nearly half of the county's acreage is now being used for agriculture, and developers are swarming over it. Permits to build single-family homes in the area have doubled in the past five years. And that may be only an early sign of the looming transformation. Demographers are projecting that over the next 15 years about 80,000 new residents will settle in or near Madera, where the population is now about 46,000.

Some farmers in the pastoral valley towns along Highway 99 can hardly believe the changes they see coming to the land. But others have no illusions anymore.

"It's going to be very difficult to stop this influx of people," said Gary Svanda, a city council member in Madera. "But we have to be smarter about how we deal with it."

Even before the population boom here, conservation groups had been fighting to protect agricultural land. Their most common tactic has been to purchase farmers' rights to develop their property. But nearly all of those deals have been with an individual landowner. In many cases, the strategy has had limited value because other farmers nearby soon decided to sell their land to developers -- which then put more pressure on the acreage still being used for agriculture.

California also has been spending about $40 million annually to give farmers property tax breaks to continue cultivating their crops. But that program is imperiled by the state's severe budget crisis. Some state officials say the incentives had not been doing much to slow development anyway. About 50,000 acres of farmland in California are vanishing every year.

Prosperi's grandparents bought the land he farms here a century ago. At 48, he has known no other livelihood, and the fields still beckon him. In a baseball cap and cowboy boots, he tends crops with great care. But when new homes began creeping close to his property, and builders began offering him $22,000 an acre, he decided that he had no choice but to sell a few dozen acres before they were engulfed by development.

His neighbors were furious. Some of them had been resisting similar overtures from developers. "I ran every one of 'em off my property," said Dorothy Campbell, 73. She and other farmers stopped speaking to Prosperi for a while. They also circulated a petition against him.

He began having second thoughts about selling. Once he and Campbell were on better terms, they began looking into other options and found willing partners in both the American Farmland Trust and California conservation officials. Six other local farmers took an interest, too.

What emerged from marathon talks was a pact in which each of them sold their rights to ever have their land used for housing or businesses.

They got to keep their farms, but made less money than they would have from selling to developers, and the restrictions will outlast the current owners' life spans. The deal initially was struck last fall but is being extended now to cover more acres.

The farmers say they are not stifling growth, just redirecting it to less productive land in other parts of Madera. Their agreement won approval from the city.

"We're not saying this area has to be held down economically and focus only on agriculture," said Chuck Tyson, program manager of California's farmland conservancy program. "But until someone really says that the population growth is slowing down, this is the best thing we can do to protect irreplaceable, high-quality farmland."

Farmers around the valley are now busy trying to create similar compacts. But that will not be easy.

Conservation groups say that getting them to cast their economic lot together often requires a profound change of attitude. Many farmers consider property rights too sacred to surrender. And some have no financial plan for retirement other than to sell their land to developers.

But Prosperi and his neighbors say they are farming their land these days with lasting peace of mind.

"I wasn't ever going to sell," Campbell said. "Without this, I just would have sat here surrounded by houses until I died."

"The way things usually go," Prosperi said, "is if a developer just picks off one farmer, then everyone else around them has to sell, too. But we stood together."