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Land's end? As urban development in SLO County grows, important local farmland is shrinking 

To the naked eye, there appears to be no shortage of farmland in SLO County.

From the fields in Nipomo and Oceano that sport neat, green rows of strawberries to the verdant hills packed with trellises of wine grapes in Paso Robles, the county's agricultural heritage remains on full display. But some of the farmlands that function as both an aesthetic and economic boon for the county have been shrinking by thousands of acres over the last 30 years, while urban development has been steadily climbing.

click to enlarge GREEN ACRES The size and classification of SLO County's farmland is constantly changing, as urban development continues to rise. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • GREEN ACRES The size and classification of SLO County's farmland is constantly changing, as urban development continues to rise.

According to data from the Californian Department of Conservation, the amount of farmland designated "locally important" in SLO County shrank by 28,040 acres between 1984 and 2014, while built-up urban land in SLO County grew by 15,206 acres during the same time period.

The department classifies agricultural land into multiple categories based on a number of criteria, including soil composition, irrigation, and other land-use factors. Examples include prime farmland, which is irrigated land with the most ideal combination of chemical and physical factors for agricultural production, as well as farmland of statewide importance, which has minor shortcomings such as such less ideal slopes or a diminished capacity to store soil moisture.

Farmland of local importance, which took the greatest hit in SLO County over the last 30 years, is defined by the County Board of Supervisors. In SLO county, locally important farmland is defined as land meeting all the requirements of prime or statewide farmland with one important distinction: It is not irrigated.

"Additional farmlands include dryland field crops of wheat, barley, oats, and safflower," the county's description states.

Of the 28,000-plus acres of locally important farmland converted to other uses in SLO County since 1984, an estimated 15,101 acres of that occurred between 2012 and 2014. The bulk of that decline is due to the land being converted to another classification. According to the department's data, 975 acres were converted to prime farmland, while another 1,504 acres were converted to farmland of statewide importance. Many of those conversions were due to the formerly dry land being irrigated, something the department chalked up to northern SLO County's emergence as a major player in the wine production industry.

"Conversion to irrigated farmland is primarily due to the addition of vineyards in the region surrounding Paso Robles," the department's report on its biennial Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program noted.

In addition, another 8,627 acres of locally important farmland was converted to grazing land during the same two-year period.

Not all of the locally important farmland was converted to grow other crops. Between 2012 and 2014, 3,600 acres were converted to "built-up urban" land, which the department defines as any land with a building density of at least 1 unit to every 1.5 acres, and has structures for residential, industrial, commercial, and other uses.

While both prime farmland and farmland of statewide importance gained acreage between 2012 and 2014, the massive loss of locally important acreage was a major contributor to a 10,710-acre loss for important farmland generally in the county for the same period of time.

The county's land-use ordinances do include protections for farmland considered for possible conversion. SLO County Agricultural Commissioner Martin Settevendemie said his office reviews applications to the county's planning department and can make comments and recommendations on farmland-related projects.

"When we do get a project, we identify what type of land it's on," Settevendemie told New Times. "We weigh our recommendation against our county's ordinances and policies."

Despite the shrinking acreage of some farmland, SLO County's agricultural sector remains fairly robust, according to the county's 2017 economic forecast report. The report, prepared by the Beacon Economics research firm, stated that the total value of SLO County's combined agricultural products was $914.7 million, a 10.5 percent increase from the previous year.

"This put the total value of commodities just shy of its record-breaking 2013 peak of $921 million," the report stated. "Making it the second best year for total values."

Once again, the county's wine industry was cited as one of the reasons for such a banner year. SLO County's wine grape values set a record in 2016 at $242.9 million, a more than 66 percent increase from the previous year, according to the report. Δ

Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at cmcguinness@newtimesslo.com.

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