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Choice for 21st Century: Keep Farming or Build Homes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To stand in the middle of Joe Boyd’s vineyard and gaze through the late harvest haze at the immensity of the Central Valley is to believe that no threat from the city could possibly be imminent.

This is California’s epic interior, 400 miles long and 50 miles wide, 7 million acres of lush farms from Bakersfield to Redding. More milk, tomatoes, grapes, almonds, peaches, apricots, figs, pistachios and cantaloupes come off these fields than any other fields in the world.

Only the tumbleweeds at roadside reveal what the whole place would look like without the dams and irrigation canals that harness the great Sierra rivers.

Boyd’s 223 acres of table grapes on old salt grassland could not seem more snug. But the old-timer, half a century of harvests under his hat, knows that this is California, and nothing lasts forever. Suburbia is spreading inexorably across the vast Central Valley, nibbling a vineyard here and a peach orchard there, claiming more than 20,000 acres a year of the nation’s most fertile soil.

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Flags of America’s biggest home builders fly everywhere, marking new subdivisions for every kind of buyer: farmers’ children who prefer suburban life, commuters to Los Angeles and the Bay Area, whites fleeing older valley neighborhoods with growing minority and poor populations, and retirees who come with enough equity to buy a dream house and still invest in a mutual fund.

A few years ago, at age 78, Boyd planted a vineyard at the edge of Kerman. He regards it today with the delight that one reserves for a creature fine and endangered. “Look at those babies,” he gestures with his chin. “Ah, I love the smell of this place. I love to see those bunches hanging.”

Boyd understands the impermanence of his young field better than most, for he is also a real estate man who has subdivided more fields than any other farmer on Fresno County’s west side. To hear him talk about his beloved Thompson seedless grapes and his beloved custom houses is to be hit with the deep paradox of this place.

It is at once America’s richest farm belt and one of America’s fastest-growing regions, and it doesn’t seem to know that it can’t have it both ways for much longer. “I wear two or three hats,” Boyd says. “A little real estate, a little lending, a little farming. I like to hedge my bets.”

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Planners and state officials are calling the future of the Central Valley--farm belt or endless strip of suburbs along Highway 99--California’s 21st century choice.

If the state doesn’t find a novel way to manage growth here, they say, it will have major repercussions for a nation that has spent billions transforming the region from desert and marsh into an agricultural colossus providing 25% of America’s table food.

“There are no more Central Valleys combining its endless soil and sun, at least not on this side of the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Carol Whiteside, the former mayor of Modesto and now director of Gov. Pete Wilson’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. “I can’t think of too many decisions facing this state that are more important than finding a way to keep the farm viable.”

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Already 12% of the original cropland has been paved over. If farm towns such as Kerman, Selma, Madera, Merced, Manteca and Modesto hold true to form, another 2.5 million acres--one-third of the best loam--will be swallowed up over the next four decades.

Some loss is unavoidable as the population, which grew almost a third in the last 10 years, continues to soar. The number of residents is projected to triple to 15 million by 2040.

But much of the growth has been a hopscotch sprawl across the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys, driven by land speculators who snatch up available fields and by city councils and county boards enticed by growth.

In many cities, these new houses and commercial strips far from the center of town cost more in services--sewer, streets, police, fire--than they fetch in property and sales taxes. A few communities have drawn tight boundaries restricting growth, but many other cities continue to grow outward, some as a way to meet the debt from past sprawl.

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“Residential development gives you some quick money upfront, but after that it’s a big burden,” said Mike Amabile, mayor of Los Banos, a cotton and dairy town in Merced County that has doubled over the last decade to 20,000 residents.

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“We’re in favor of preserving prime farmland, but we also find ourselves in the dilemma of having to grow to pay off our bond debt.”

The valley’s paradox reveals itself everywhere. Inner city gangbangers now hang down the road from Future Farmers of America dressing their pigs for fair time. Residents complain about the dust from almond and cotton harvests, while urban smog has helped make this one of the most polluted air basins in the country. The land is so flat and far-reaching that no one element dominates, not the fierce sun or brooding fog.

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U.S. taxpayers have paid a pretty price to make this arid valley bloom. Irrigation projects have cost nearly $2 billion, and billions more have been spent to subsidize crops and marketing campaigns, including payments to giants such as J.G. Boswell, the world’s biggest cotton grower, and winemakers Ernest and Julio Gallo.

But there is no denying the incomparable return, 250 crops in all, a $50-billion farm economy that sustains tractor and chemical companies, fruit packers, food processors, a deep water port at Sacramento and a network of towns. In all, one out of every 10 jobs in California is tied to farming.

“To replace a base economy like agriculture, you have to produce something like computer chips or movies that bring in export earnings,” said George Goldman, an economist at UC Berkeley. “Mini-malls and houses aren’t a base economy. You just can’t wipe out ag and not replace it with something that isn’t productive.”

Like Joe Boyd in Kerman, farmers are of two minds on the transformation. Voices who might speak with passion about losing cropland--the local farm bureau or politicians--cannot agree on what, if anything, to do. Many farmers, tired of low crop prices and government regulation, are eager to listen when developers offer $30,000 or more an acre for land worth $4,000 as a cotton patch.

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“I’ve got no second thoughts about selling,” said James Mahaffey, whose 45-acre apricot field was recently annexed by the city of Patterson for development. “I’m 81 years old and we used to make a good living, but anymore the farm prices haven’t kept up with the economy. If I wasn’t getting Social Security, I don’t know what I’d live on.”

No county has been more bullish on converting farmland than Kern County. Over the last decade, more than 20,000 acres around Bakersfield have turned to suburbs. The county board even disbanded its planning commission as one less impediment to builders.

“I guess I’m not opposed to development, but it’s got to be orderly,” said John Jelmini, a 73-year-old cotton farmer. He figures that development is 10 years shy of his land in Rosedale, a hodgepodge of fields, oil wells and new suburbs outside Bakersfield.

“If the man next to me sells, I guess I will,” he said. “It’s such a headache farming next door to him that you might as well sell out to him.”

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One son is a dentist, another works for an oil company, and a daughter is married to a local builder who has eyes for some of the 550 acres of cotton that Jelmini farms.

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Youngest son Rick Jelmini, 38, followed his dad into farming but feels squeezed by the new arrivals and their lack of affection for the farm.

“Look around us,” he said, his Wranglers and denim shirt a greasy mess. “Kaufman & Broad, Centex [subdivisions]. I have certain fields that I can’t apply chemicals by plane because the homeowners complain.

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“I’m afraid the horse is out of the barn and you’re not going to be able to stop it,” he said.

Overbuilding has hurt the real estate business as well. In the hum of the early 1990s, a choice subdivision here could sell out in six months. At nearby Redwood Estates, only 45 houses--on half the lots--rise from the old potato field after 2 1/2 years.

Realtor Sam Wilkerson gave a tour of what $215,000 can buy: a 2,500-square-foot house on a half-acre lot with a big sunken tub that looks out to a huge green lawn, whitewashed cabinets, 12-foot ceilings and a fiberglass hearth. Unfortunately, he said, the county approved several subdivisions in Rosedale without adequate sewer capacity. Redwood Estates is built on septic tanks.

Buyers not only have to bear the cost of connecting to the future sewer plant, but they must pay a hefty school assessment. “There’s so many new houses available that buyers are getting picky,” he said. “They don’t want to pay these assessments.”

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Marty and Loraine Meltz live in the southwest part of Bakersfield near metal grasshoppers pulling third-rate crude from the alkali floor. On a former cotton field, the Meltzes turned their equity from a tiny box in Eagle Rock into a four-bedroom showcase with swimming pool and spa.

Even though Marty Meltz, 43, drives 100 miles each night to his TV production job in Hollywood and drives back at 2 a.m., he wouldn’t trade places with his old self.

Loraine Meltz, a freelance graphic artist, has changed her hours to fit his--2 p.m. dinners, 4 a.m. chats in the backyard spa. Her heritage is Native American and his is Jewish, but they’re both Pentecostals now in the land of born-agains.

“It’s a friendly, family town,” she said. “We love the pace and we love the people. But we’re still trying to acclimate to the weather. The sun is unbearable, and the tule fog, it’s the most frightening thing.”

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Along the zipper of Highway 99, through Wasco (Rose Capital of the Nation) and Pixley (Home of the Black-Eyed Pea) and Selma (Raisin Capital of the World), slow-growth forces have been slow to build support. Their boogeyman--the “Los Angelization” of the Central Valley--has failed to stir the masses.

Surely, one reason is the ocean of lush fields that remains--six times more irrigated land than Los Angeles and Orange counties together at their agricultural peaks. But since 1984, the Central Valley has seen a net loss of more than 260,000 acres of important farmland, according to state figures. Much of this lost land isn’t the salty marginal soil on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley where the so-called water-guzzling corporate farms reside. Rather, it is the best loam along Highway 99 that is vanishing.

And with ever more farmland in the hands of out-of-town investors and corporations, the ties to the soil are less romantic and more bottom line, farm advocates say. Dole Fruits, for one, has a sister company, Castle & Cooke, that is subdividing huge tracts of farmland in Kern and Madera counties.

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At the Tevelde dairy on the edge of Modesto, George Tevelde Jr., 56, swears he is seeing history repeat. His father, George, a Dutch immigrant, had to sell his first dairy in Paramount when developers bought up land around him in the 1950s.

The family dairy moved to Chino only to face the squeeze of encroaching suburbs again. In the late 1970s, George Jr. decided to move his wife, three children and 900 Holsteins far from the reach of Southern California.

They landed on 700 scenic acres along the Stanislaus River, built a beautiful home upwind from their dairy and carved out a comfortable life. Today, after 15 years of creeping annexations by the city, Tevelde can feel the breath of Modesto.

“All it takes is one housing tract,” he said. “You can build 8-foot walls around your cows, but that won’t hold back the flies, the odor, the dust. Houses and dairies just don’t mix.”

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Twice, he has beaten back projects launched by farmers around him to turn orchards into subdivisions. But the estates of the Del Rio Country Club are so close that the manure kicked up by his tractors films the swimming pools. The stores of the Vintage Mall are just down the road.

A few years ago, a real estate agent approached and asked why he wasn’t making his own plans to sell and retire. If you can get $100,000 an acre, $70 million, Tevelde said half-jokingly, he’d sell. She came back a few weeks later and told him there was one major obstacle. Some of the local county supervisors were in favor of farmland protection.

“I told her, ‘Ma’am, you let me know who those supervisors are because I want to send them a campaign contribution,’ ” Tevelde said.

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He got himself appointed to the Stanislaus County planning commission. There is talk of a greenbelt to draw a line around development, but he has mixed emotions.

“Part of me says, ‘Let me decide how to protect my farmland,’ ” Tevelde said. “And part of me says, ‘There won’t be any farmland left to protect if the state or someone else doesn’t step in.’ ”

Last month, Patterson (Apricot Capital of the World) approved a controversial Kaufman & Broad subdivision on prime farmland as part of an annexation that will double the town’s population of 10,000. Patterson boasts plenty of existing houses to serve any natural population growth, but the builder has another vision: to recruit hundreds of families over the mountain from the Bay Area using the lure of cheap houses.

“We need a grocery chain and retail stores, and every time we go out to get them, we hear the same answer: ‘You don’t have enough people in town,’ ” said City Manager George Lambert. “So we’ve decided to bring in commuters. We’re aware of the gamble.”

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At the Orchard subdivision in nearby Grayson--where the models were sold in three “blossom” sizes--peach, apple and orange--some some families have grown tired of the 90-minute commute and moved back to the Bay Area. Many homes are for rent, padlocked or for sale at a $20,000 loss.

“We call it ‘Grayslum,’ ” said Sue Olson, whose husband still commutes to his job at Hewlett-Packard in San Ramon. “We were promised the world. A new school, a park, a community center. But we’re just a cluster of houses in the middle of the alfalfa fields.”

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In Fresno and nearby Clovis, some of the building boom is being fueled by white flight. As Asian refugees and Latino families move into established neighborhoods, longtime residents are leaving for new gated communities near the San Joaquin River.

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Population growth--a net gain of 183,000 residents in Fresno County since 1984--is outpacing job growth, statistics show. Officials estimate that a quarter of these newcomers live in poverty. “Our welfare population doubled in the early 1980s, and it’s grown through the ‘90s,” said Ernest Velasquez, head of social services in Fresno County.

“Picking crops isn’t a job option for many of these people, and all this sprawl hasn’t delivered them to any promised land either.”

If there is a Paul Revere trying to rouse the farms against the onrush of suburbia, he is Rudy Platzek, a valley native who returned home after a 20-year career planning cities in the Bay Area. He converted his farmhouse outside Modesto into a war room filled with graphs and maps showing the valley filling up.

“In one lifetime, if we continue business as usual, the richest farmland in the world won’t even be able to feed itself,” warns Platzek, who is devoting his retirement to the cause of farmland preservation.

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He and others urge that California take a cue from Oregon and establish urban growth boundaries around valley communities. “It’s going to require a major overhaul of state planning laws,” he said. “You just can’t say it’s a local issue and leave it up to the cities and counties, because they’re in a perpetual fight over who gets the next Wal-Mart and Target.”

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Under the Williamson Act, California gives a property tax break to farmers who keep their land in agriculture. But officials concede that the program is used mostly by farmers far from the suburban fringe. When growth reaches their doorstep, they tend to drop out in significant numbers.

A hidden consequence of the rapid growth in the Central Valley is that city after city reports that it is worse off fiscally. A big reason, several studies show, is that new housing subdivisions and commercial strips do not bring in enough property and sales taxes to cover their infrastructure costs.

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“The valley is trying to build what Los Angeles and the Bay Area built but under financial constraints those cities didn’t face,” said Dean Misczynski, director of legislative research for the State Library. “Proposition 13 has cut by two-thirds the revenue a city gets from housing. And the federal government has gotten out of the business of financing infrastructure.

“In the 1970s, growth paid its way. Today, it’s not.”

Valley cities have taken on mounds of bond debt to finance sewer expansion, new subdivisions and golf courses. Some have defaulted on bonds, and at least two, Wasco and Arvin, have considered dis-incorporating.

The Wilson administration has shied away from a promise to tackle growth management, saying a recession was hardly the time to limit development. But local finance directors and budget analysts say recession is precisely the reason to discuss growth policies that are slowly bankrupting their cities.

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“I don’t know what the answer to this thing is,” said Stockton’s finance director, L. Patrick Samsell. “Eventually you will reach a point where services are going to have to be stopped in certain areas. You can’t be all things to all people.”

Officials say there are three ways for growing cities to close the gap: stop the sprawl and develop within built-up areas, tax residents or increase the fees developers pay toward infrastructure. Politicians aren’t big on any one.

“The answer is higher density,” said Bruce Freeman, president of Castle & Cooke development. “Higher density saves farmland and infrastructure costs. But the valley is sort of the Wild West, and people value their freedom. You ever talk about small lots around this place, they’ll lynch you.”

Freeman, for one, does not buy the doomsday vision of a valley surrendering to suburbia any time soon. People don’t buy houses where they can’t find good jobs, he says.

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At the dairy, George Tevelde has turned over daily operations to his son and looks forward to the day when his youngest daughter graduates from college and joins them. “She’s going to be the best dairyman of them all,” he smiles.

Sometimes, selling to a developer crosses his mind. Then he takes a drive along the river bluff, peers down into the ribbon of water and over to his shed bursting with 7,000 tons of hay. He takes a whiff of the sweet air. “How do you sell something like this?”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Vanishing Fields

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The Great Central Valley of California is a farm empire of immense proportions: about 7 million acres of fruits, nuts, vegetables, grains and cotton from Bakersfield to Redding. But builders and the cities that welcome them are planting houses on a growing swath of the best land, and the valley’s urban population has swelled since 1980s.

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Farm Acres Urban Acres 1984-94 1984-94 San Joaquin Valley Kern -90,108 19,943 Kings -23,517 11,230 Fresno -8,389 12,419 Madera -6,472 2,644 Merced -13,476 1,833 San Joaquin -7,645 9,243 Stanislaus -3,930 7,365 Tulare -22 1,200 Total -153,559 65,877 Sacramento Valley Glenn -1,606 254 Sacramento -15,311 21,079 Shasta 6,499 5,421 Sutter -9,235 2,866 Tehama -44,717 1,290 Yolo -23,244 3,536 Yuba -20,672 561 Total -108,286 35,007 Central Valley -261,845 100,884

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Note: Farmland does not include grazing land; partial figures for Kern and Tulare counties.

Sources: California Department of Conservation; Rudy Platzek


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