With the state’s ongoing budget surplus, the Newsom administration is looking to revamp California’s program for Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation (SALC). Years of adjustments to the program have led to a complex application process that often screens out the prime farmland the state seeks to protect.

The Strategic Growth Council, compiled of agency secretaries and political appointees, oversees the program and is considering a new approach that would instead treat SALC like an investment portfolio, offering more flexibility and staff discretion in the decision making.

But farmland conservation groups say much more is needed to slow the unrelenting tide of urban development sweeping into California’s agricultural lands. The state has lost more than a million acres of agricultural land—mostly to development—over the last three decades. American Farmland Trust estimates if the trend continues, another 1.4 million acres will be lost by mid-century.

Since its creation in 2014, SALC has wavered between two goals: protecting productive farmland and encouraging compact, transit-oriented communities. With the pandemic upending expectations for housing development, more Californians are permanently working from home and cutting their tethers to urban hubs—adding yet more pressure to modernize the SALC bureaucracy.

“We're at this critical tipping point for the program,” said Keali'i Bright, director of land resource protection at the Department of Conservation, during a council hearing last week on the issue. “We've taken this approach of refining and making things more granular as far as it can go.”

Virginia JamesonCDFA Deputy Secretary Virginia Jameson

According to Bright, who leads the implementation of SALC, the program has protected 143,000 acres of land, an area the size of Sacramento and Stockton combined. Preserving working lands supplements the state’s climate goals by maintaining a natural carbon sink and minimizing greenhouse gas emissions from urban regions. SALC also helps to secure the nation’s food supply, conserve habitat and preserve open spaces for recreation. The program began with a generalized approach, explained Bright, but the constant churning of major policy initiatives concerning natural and working lands, housing and social equity have led to continual refinements in the program criteria.

“It's just getting harder and harder for [farmers and ranchers] to make that cost-benefit decision to apply for the program because of the complexity,” he said, adding that is raising new questions over the quality of those SALC investments. “One of the losers, frankly, of this approach has been those lands with the highest agricultural value.”

Testifying to this was Nancy Schaefer, the Bay Area program manager for the California Rangeland Trust.

“With each grant round, the guidelines have become more complicated and restrictive, so that some of our good easement projects are no longer eligible,” said Schaefer.

Bright admitted the program lacks sophisticated metrics for conserving lands to stop urban sprawl and support more concentrated infill development. The task of determining development risk has been growing more challenging each year.

“This emerging issue of telecommuting is totally upending the drivers of development,” he said, as he outlined emerging factors like broadband access, less-frequent commutes and proximity to recreation. “We really don't have great data on this trend.”

At the same time, the council is seeing historic levels of funding pour into SALC. The state’s budget surplus delivered a $1.1 billion spending package for sustainable agriculture in 2021, which is spread over two years. The Newsom administration has been steadily issuing new policy directives for a natural and working lands climate strategy, for protecting biodiversity and conserving 30% of the state’s land by 2030, and for tackling a spiraling housing crisis.

Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot agreed with Bright’s findings and recognized that streamlining the application process aligns well with his priorities for ecosystem conservation projects, an effort he dubbed cutting the green tape.

“We in state government have a tendency to make our programs more complex over time and create a calcified set of requirements that seemed like good improvements at the time,” said Crowfoot.

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Virginia Jameson, who was recently appointed as the CDFA deputy secretary and previously managed programs in the Department of Conservation, noted the importance of protecting prime farmland. These areas tend to be closest to cities and have the highest potential for avoiding greenhouse gas emissions, but don’t have “as many of the frills, as far as habitat or watershed benefits.”

Other council members suggested including potential equity and health benefits from protecting natural and working lands within the new paradigm of the portfolio approach.

Yet Kara Heckert, who directs California programs for American Farmland Trust, believes much more is needed to ensure reliable funding for SALC and other programs.

“Although we have some good funding sources in California for agricultural land protection, we actually have no dedicated funding source for agricultural conservation easements that is not dependent either on bonds or cap-and-trade auction proceeds, which could have changing priorities,” explained Heckert, during the annual California Rangeland Conservation Summit last week. “Although we're very innovative in California and our farmers and ranchers are doing incredible things, we actually don't have a very deep state investment in protecting land.”

The organization has analyzed each state’s response to development threats for agricultural lands and found California on average spends just 11 cents per capita on farmland protection—compared to Delaware’s $6.02.

California Farmland Trust—a separate entity from American Farmland Trust—has been engaging with local land use planners in Central Valley cities and counties to “ensure that there's robust farmland protection policies in place and that they don't ignore those,” said Executive Director Charlotte Mitchell.

“Our ability to move forward in protecting farmland is going to be really contingent upon [the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act] and the effects of keeping these groundwater basins sustainable,” she added, emphasizing that farmers must be able to convert fallowed lands back into production at times.

California Rangeland Trust, meanwhile, has 365,000 acres under easement and another 200,000 acres of viable working ranches on its shortlist for conservation. CEO Michael Delbar estimated the additional acres would require up to $250 million to permanently protect.

“We can conserve those—figuratively speaking—tomorrow, definitely by the year 2030 If the funds were available,” said Delbar, referring to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 30x30 executive order to conserve the state’s lands and coastal waters. “That's how much interest is out there. That's how much these landowners want to conserve these lands.”

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