The ruin of California agriculture?

by MEAT&POULTRY Staff
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Agriculture drives California’s economy – the high-tech industry, the financial industry, even the entertainment business pale by comparison – but a law that has been critical to the survival of the state’s agriculture for more than 40 years is under dire threat from pressures owing to California’s dismal economic conditions. And the state’s beef producers may wind up suffering the most.

The California Land Conservation Act of 1965, better known as the Williamson Act for its author John Williamson, who represented beef-strong Kern County in the California Assembly in the 1960s, trades a 10-year promise to keep properties 100 acres or larger in agricultural production for a much-reduced property tax rate. (A "super Williamson" law holds to a 20-year promise.) In California counties such as Marin, Sonoma and Monterey, where land values skyrocketed into the stratosphere beginning in the 1970s, the Act has been a lifesaver for farmers and ranchers – indeed, without the Act, agriculture in these counties, including even boutique enterprises such as vineyards and small organic dairies, would likely be financially unviable. But even in counties where property values did not increase so dramatically the Act was a huge benefit to agriculture. Beef ranches, which tend to include lots of acreage, were especially helped by the Act.

Overall, the Act can save a farmer or rancher 20-75 percent on property taxes. Crucial to the success of the Act was its provision that counties would be reimbursed by the state government for the difference in the reduced property tax paid by landowners covered by the Act and the tax that would have been paid if the land was assessed at market rate – what are called "subvention dollars." But earlier this month, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, in an 11th-hour decision, defunded the Act’s subvention account in order to save approximately $39 million. At present, there is just $1,000 in the reimbursement account, according to the California Cattlemen’s Association.

"Williamson is the broadest-based and most successful legislation for agricultural conservation in California history. Fortunately, the governor can’t eliminate the program, because it’s law," Matt Byrne, CCA’s executive vice president, told MEATPOULTRY.com, "but he can de-fund it, which is what he did."

Byrne said that at present the Act is de-funded for a single fiscal year, 2009-2010. "Next time the budget comes up in the legislature, we’re going to try to regain what we lost – if nothing else changes, that is," he said.

Approximately 39 million acres in California are rangeland, and about 10 million of these are privately held and thus eligible for Williamson Act coverage. (In total, 16.9 million acres in agricultural production in California are covered by the Act.) Beef production has particularly benefited from the Act because, Byrne noted, "with rangeland, it generally takes a lot more acres to provide a return compared to other kinds of agriculture."

In February of this year, as the state legislature first began grappling with the budget, funding for the Act’s subvention account was cut by 10 percent, and by the time the budget was finally ready for the governor’s signature this summer, "we expected the Act to receive about 80 percent of full funding. Then at the last minute all of the funding except, basically, enough to keep the account open was removed."

Bringing back funding for the Act has brought together a one-time coalition of traditional agricultural organizations such as the CCA, land-trust groups, and conservationists and environmentalists dedicated to preserving what have been called "working landscapes." "The support from the conservation and land-trust groups is one reason why Williamson is even viable," Byrne said.

CCA’s priorities right now are meeting with county supervisors all over California to persuade them not to place market-value property-tax assessments on Williamson Act land in order to make up county budget shortfalls as well as meeting with state legislators. "There are 52 counties in California (out of 58) that have Williamson Act contracts, so it’s been pretty wide-ranging," Byrne said. "We’re trying to address this on both the county and state levels."

He added: "For more than 40 years, our members have help up their end of the bargain to keep land in agricultural production. Now we want the state to hold up their end."

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