In considering the connection of land use to California’s climate goals, the Strategic Growth Council on Tuesday approved $57 million in new grants for preserving agricultural lands.

The Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation Program ensures the lands are not converted to uses that would emit more greenhouse gases. The 31 land easements approved by the council span 19 counties, protecting 20,000 acres of farmland and rangeland and avoid an estimated 4.5 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent.

Funding also goes to six planning grants for local governments to keep farmland in agriculture. This includes projects like helping Madera County adapt to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) by protecting prime farmland and other soils where less water-intensive practices like grazing or dryland farming are used. Last year, the program received no applications for this type of grant. 

This is the fifth year for the program, which is administered by the Department of Conservation. The department will have more than $3 million left over from the funds to be carried over to the next round, which begins in January.

The largest of the easement grants awarded more than $10 million to a land trust in the Salinas Valley to prevent the development of 180 housing units on a mixed farm and cattle ranch, where organic strawberries and leafy greens are grown. The project will protect 29,000 oak trees as well as the vulnerable California tiger salamander.

The hearing Tuesday was filled with supportive testimony from dozens of farmers and land trust representatives.

Walnut farmer Mike Machado had submitted one of the easement applications. Machado said the ranch he grew up on was also signed into an easement by his father, who wanted to ensure “all that he had worked for would not be taken away.”

Among the benefits he has seen is the ability to participate in CDFA sustainability programs for soil health and water use efficiency.

“If you’re in a floodplain, keeping the land in agriculture really is a benefit for (SGMA),” he added.

Machado said the bottom line is that it helps maintain family farms and facilitate inter-generational transfers.

“Without that, we wouldn’t necessarily be building for the future of our children and their children,” he said.