Dave Zollinger Saves Some for Posterity
The sight of thousands of acres of fertile San Joaquin Valley farmland disappearing under housing tracts and shopping malls each year spurred Dave Zollinger to do something about it. The long-time member of Blue Diamond® and board member has seen what happens with "indiscriminate urban sprawl." He grew up in the San Fernando Valley during the 1940s and remembers it as a beautiful area of orange groves that was "a wonderful place to live." Then came the post-war housing boom that replaced the orange groves with suburbs, malls and air pollution.
Seeing an onrushing tide of development sweeping the Central Valley in recent years, most notably in his own neighborhood south of Delhi, Zollinger had no desire to repeat his southern California experience. He chose to make a stand…a statement…to preserve a piece of prime farmland for posterity. A partnership among state and federal agencies, Merced County, the Merced County Farmland and Open Space Trust, and American Farmland Trust (AFT) made it possible for him to sell an agricultural conservation easement on his 74-acre ranch. Conservation easements offer landowners flexibility in estate planning while keeping prime farmland in continuous agricultural use.
"This was an opportunity to conserve the land, to maintain it in a way that urban sprawl couldn't overtake it," he said. "It makes me feel good to know that this land will be farmed forever."
Zollinger received $368 thousand for the easement. In return, his land - now planted to almonds, peaches and walnuts - may not be used for anything other than farming or agriculturally related businesses. If he sells the property, future owners would be subject to the same restrictions.
The payment may seem like a lot of money, Zollinger says, but it's much less than he could earn from it if he waited ten years to develop it. But maximizing his return on the property wasn't his intent, he explains: "I've spent many years putting this farm together from scratch - planting trees, building up the soil, and fine-tuning the irrigation system. It gives me great comfort to know that these peach and almond orchards will be available for future generations of farmers, rather than becoming another subdivision."
Funds for the purchase of the easement came from the state's Farmland Conservancy Program and the U.S.D.A.'s Farmland Protection Program. The AFT arranged the financing and ensures the agreement is carried out.
Zollinger's is one of just a few agricultural conservation easements in the San Joaquin Valley, according to AFT. The program is new, but the AFT has another dozen or so projects underway.
Not just any piece of farmland meets the program's goals, however. AFT seeks to protect prime farmland threatened by a city's growth and to direct growth with the placement of easements. The Central Valley offers plenty of candidates. According to AFT, the valley is the most threatened major land resource area in the United States because of its high agricultural productivity, high crop value, and severe threat of population growth.
In Merced County, AFT hopes Zollinger's easement will anchor a line of similar easements on the south side of Delhi, creating a boundary of permanently protected farmland. They will have to move quickly. In the 32 years that Zollinger has been farming there, Delhi has grown from practically nothing to eight thousand people, with the most recent four thousand arriving in just the last few years. At the moment, growth is heading north, but that could change over night, he notes.
"We hope that other farmers in Merced County follow Mr. Zollinger's lead and join in this effort to prevent further urban encroachment onto the high-quality farmland along the Merced River," said Greg Clark, AFT northern San Joaquin Valley field representative.