This post is about the California state budget, and so may seem relevant primarily to Californians. However, what happens to California agriculture affects most Americans, as California is the only U.S. producer of almonds, clingstone peaches, figs, persimmons, artichokes, dried plums, olives, pomegranates, raisins, and walnuts (PDF).
As suburbia roars into farming and ranching areas, the new housing and offices bring the possibility of higher property-tax rates for farms and ranches, which means more money in the coffers of local government. If owners of working farms and ranches are required to pay property taxes based on their land's residential or commercial valuation, they usually have no choice but to sell the land to developers. A 1965 California law known as the Williamson Act helps preserve farms and ranches by allowing those who enroll in the program to have their land taxed at a rate based on actual use, not potential use. The state then compensates cities and counties for the revenue loss.
According to a fact sheet from the Division of Land Resource Protection (PDF), "nearly 16.9 million of the state’s 29 million acres of farm and ranch land are currently protected under the Williamson Act." It is an immensely successful program. But, like many programs that get in the way of powerful development interests, it is at risk.
A May 24 editorial in the SF Chronicle alerted me to the governor's plan:
BURIED IN Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget plans for next year is a small but truly bad idea. He wants to save $40 million by canceling a farmland preservation program.
He thinks he can dump the costs on rural and suburban counties, a favorite gambit of Sacramento budget balancers. In this case, however, he will unhinge a successful state plan that rewards agriculture and local government for staving off sprawl.
...Ditching [the Williamson Act] won't mean that hard-pressed counties will step in and take over the subsidies. It will likely result in land sales, a decline in farming and ranching, new development in unprepared areas and a giant monkey wrench tossed into efforts to control and plan California's growth.
Scrapping the Williamson Act will save $40 million in a budget proposal of $103.1 billion in general fund spending and $145 billion in total spending--less than 0.05% of the total budget. Prisons, meanwhile, are slated to get over $10 billion in Schwarzenegger's budget.
If you live in California, write or phone your state representatives asking them to fully fund the Williamson Act. You can find the address and phone number of your assemblymember and senator here. If you live in another state, tell your California friends and family about the Williamson Act, and check if your state has a farmland protection program like the Williamson Act and its status. Once a farm or ranch is covered with houses, parking lots, shopping centers or office buildings, the land is gone from agriculture forever. We desperately need to preserve the farmland that remains.