One of California agriculture’s most important programs is not yet on its death bed, but the prognosis is not good.

Making matters worse, grower-shippers have little faith in the attending physicians, better known as the California Legislature.

California ag program takes a hit

Don Schrack
Staff Writer

Back when some common sense was required to run for political office in this state, lawmakers passed the California Land Conservation Act of 1965. Commonly known as the Williamson Act, the bill authored by then Assemblyman John Williamson in simple terms permitted counties to enter into long-term contracts with growers.

The counties gave the farmers nice breaks on their property taxes and, in return, the growers promised to keep farming the land. No selling to developers. No building golf courses. No shopping malls.

Now here’s the rub. There is a third party to the deal. The state agreed to provide each participating county a nice annual check to make up for the loss in property taxes.

Just a few years ago, the state’s annual Williamson Act payments to more than 50 counties totaled something in the neighborhood of $40 million.

“The Williamson Act has not only been a practical tool, but it’s also been a symbolic tool that really puts forward the idea of farmland preservation,” said Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based California Grape & Tree Fruit League.

In the fiscal 2010 budget, the state — rather than killing the program — kept it alive by slipping a few shekels — a very few — into the account.

Kern County, which had been receiving more than $4.5 million, got a check for $133.22.

The biggest Williamson Act check, for $150.45, went to Fresno County, the nation’s No. 1 ag county. Tulare County, another of the San Joaquin Valley’s major fresh fruit producers, also was shortchanged. Its check was for $98.

All told, the state’s largesse amounted to less than $1,000 for more than 16 million acres of farmland.

Some hope

Thanks to concerted lobbying by the California Farm Bureau Federation and others, a couple of new laws are now in effect. A county that goes along by offering just 90% of the property tax benefit to Williamson Act farmers becomes eligible for a share of $10 million, according to Holly King, a Kern County grower-shipper.

Making the deal a bit sweeter, she said, is that the county actually gets to keep all of the grower’s 10% increase in property taxes. That’s important, you see, because California counties now send all property tax funds to Sacramento, which in turn doles some of it out to counties based on a complex formula that favors higher populations.

“Only a small portion of every dollar comes back to the county,” King said. “In Fresno County, it is only 17 cents.”

The reason for the Williamson Act dilemma is simple: Sacramento lawmakers have for more than a decade been spending like drunken sailors ignoring — or not caring — that revenues were not keeping pace. The state’s red ink now exceeds $20 billion.

If California does not straighten up its act, disappearing farmland will not be the only casualty. Retailers and foodservice operators will be lucky to find some commodities — and when they do, at much higher prices.

“Without the state’s support and with all the demands now on local governments, I don’t know how we can expect to keep all the growers around,” Bedwell said.

“There will be a real impact, and, longer term, it’s not good for the citizens of the state.”

E-mail dschrack@thepacker.com

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