It’s a sign of the times that Riverside County’s first navel orange tree now resides behind a wrought-iron fence, identified by a plaque and protected by lock and key, a museum piece on a busy street corner.
The thriving industry that the original navel helped found in 1870 has withered to nearly nothing as Riverside County has become another kind of California symbol, emblematic of the state’s 60-year transformation from a vast farming state to a sprawling megalopolis.
Over the last decade, Riverside County has changed more than any other in the state, accounting for 14% of 351,000 acres converted to urban uses as Southern California continued to fuel the state’s population explosion, according to a Times analysis of new state data.
“The Central Valley is changing dramatically, but the area where we still see most of the action in terms of the sheer bulk of development is Southern California,” said Eric Vink, who heads the state’s Division of Land Resource Protection.
The pace of development has quickened in recent years, Vink said. The 91,000 acres urbanized statewide during the last two years of the 1990s were the most in any similar period in a decade, reflecting the state’s recovery from a prolonged economic slowdown.
And California’s rapid growth has accelerated since then. “There’s certainly no end in sight,” Vink said.
And Riverside County sets the pace. There, 15 golf course communities expanded into the eastern deserts of the Coachella Valley in the last two years of the ‘90s. In the last half-century, thousands of acres of citrus groves have given way to suburban housing tracts as migrants from expensive coastal communities have flocked inland for affordable homes.
During the 1990s alone, Riverside urbanized nearly 48,000 acres, including 21,000 acres of farmland classified as important by the state. The “important” designation refers to four classifications of cropland, from prime topsoil to more marginal parcels supporting dry-land crops such as wheat.
Once a principal source of navel oranges, Riverside and San Bernardino counties now produce only 2% of California’s total.
“There was citrus everywhere when I came here in 1957,” recalled Charlie Coggins, a citrus expert and professor emeritus at UC Riverside. “Now as I drive to work, I don’t see any until I get to the campus because of the conversion to houses.”
Even on the UC Riverside campus, development threatens. The 500-acre citrus experiment station is gradually being overwhelmed by university demands for student housing and a parking lot.
“Martin Luther King [Boulevard] runs through the middle of it,” said Don Cooksey, a dean in the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences. “Everything to the north is probably up for grabs in the next few years. On the south side we’ll maintain citrus. Some of our groves are 100 years old.”
As goes Riverside, so goes Southern California. Half a century ago, Los Angeles County was the No. 1 agricultural producer in the U.S. Today, hardly any cropland remains. Among the coastal counties, only Ventura and San Diego have much farmland left.
Inland, the boom still motors along. In 1998-2000, Riverside and San Diego counties accounted for 29% of all the urbanization in California, much of it along the Interstate 15 corridor. And Riverside and San Diego counties ranked first and second, respectively, for farmland loss in the state, converting about 9,200 acres combined.
“Riverside and San Diego counties are gradually going out of the business of farming, just as Los Angeles and Orange did before them,” said author Bill Fulton, editor of a statewide planning newsletter. “Eventually, there will be a shift to where the Central Valley is the region where most of the urbanization is going on.”
That point will be reached in the next 10 or 20 years, Fulton said, after Southern California’s land is all spoken for, either as wildlife habitat or as land slated for development.
Much of the state’s farmland loss during the 1990s was in the Central Valley, which stretches from Kern County in the south to Shasta County in the north and is the world’s most productive region.
It lost about 43% of the 147,000 acres of net cropland converted to urban uses in California in that decade, state data show. The area’s population is projected to triple to 12 million by 2040.
Fresno, Sacramento and San Joaquin counties ranked second, third and fourth, respectively, in farmland loss. Kern County, feeling the northward creep of Southern California, moved up to seventh and Stanislaus was ninth.
“Sacramento and San Joaquin are much more at risk as farming counties; they’re more in the path of growth from the Bay Area,” Fulton said. “Fresno will continue to urbanize rapidly, but farming will still be the economic core for the foreseeable future.”
The farmland loss won’t signal the death of California agriculture for at least 20 or 30 years, said Alvin D. Sokolow, a public policy expert at UC Davis who studies farmland issues.
“We are still the leading agricultural state by far” in terms of the total value of farm products and farm exports, Sokolow said. “Growth by itself will not kill agriculture. What will kill it is running out of water, no longer staying competitive, no longer having a labor supply and no longer being profitable.”
There are still about 7 million acres of cropland in the Central Valley, out of a statewide total of about 12 million, and about 15 million acres of grazing land, according to state estimates.
Conversion figures are from the state Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program, which surveys nearly all of the fast-growing areas of the state and about 90% of private lands in California. Actual statewide totals are slightly higher, Vink said.
Some other estimates place California’s farmland loss much higher. A U.S. Department of Agriculture inventory concluded that the amount of farmland converted to urban and other uses is about twice the state’s estimate for 1992-97.
The federal inventory used samples to estimate land use changes, while the state uses more comprehensive aerial photography for its mapping, Sokolow said.
Either way, he said, farming is still healthy in California.
But without a powerful strategy for preservation, other analysts have warned, it’s only a matter of time before development stretches virtually uninterrupted along Highway 99 from Bakersfield to Sacramento.
“Projections literally show a linear city along the Highway 99 corridor,” Vink said. “But the valley is 50 miles wide, so the real question is how far out will that growth radiate.”
Yet, Sokolow and Vink said they are encouraged by the efforts of local governments to avoid the type of leapfrog projects scattered outside of cities that for decades marked development in California.
“Believe it or not, we consume our land more efficiently than most other parts of the country,” Sokolow said.