CA farmland getting gobbled up by solar projects

February 4, 2013


Published: Feb 2, 2013

FILE – In this Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2011 file photo, solar panels are seen at the NRG Solar and Eurus Energy America Corp.’s 45-megawatt solar farm in Avenal, Calif. There’s a land rush of sorts going on across the nation’s most productive farming region, but these buyers don’t want to grow crops. Instead developers are looking to plant solar voltaic cells to generate electricity for a state mandated to get 33 percent from renewables by the end of the decade. (AP Photo/The Sentinel, Apolinar Fonseca, File)

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) – There’s a land rush of sorts going on across the nation’s most productive farming region, but these buyers don’t want to grow crops. They want to plant solar farms.

With California mandating that 33 percent of electricity be generated from renewables by the end of the decade, there are 227 proposed solar projects in the pipeline statewide. Coupled with wind and other renewables they would generate enough electricity to meet 100 percent of California’s power needs on an average summer day, the California Independent System Operator says.

And new applications for projects keep arriving.

Developers are flocking to flat farmland near power transmission lines, but agriculture interests, environmental groups and even the state are concerned that there is no official accounting of how much of this important agricultural region’s farmland is being taken out of production.

“”We’ve been trying to get a handle on the extent of this for quite a while now,” said Ed Thompson of American Farmland Trust, which monitors how much of the nation’s farmland is absorbed by development.

The California Department of Conservation, which is supposed to track development on privately held farmland, has been unable to do so because of staff and funding reductions, officials say.

“I’d love to say we have all of that information, but we really don’t,” said Molly Penberth, manager of the land resource protection division. “We’re going to play catch up getting that information, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley.”

Planning department records in four of the valley’s biggest farming counties show about 100 solar generation plants already proposed on roughly 40,000 acres, or about the equivalent of 470 Disneyland theme parks. Planners in Fresno County say their applications for solar outnumber the ones they received for housing developments during the boom days.

Solar developers have focused on the southern San Joaquin Valley over the past three years for the same reason as farmers: flat expanses of land and an abundance of sunshine. Land that has been tilled most often has fewer issues with endangered species than places such as the Mojave Desert, where an endangered tortoise slowed solar development on federal land.

Much of the solar development is proposed for Kern, Tulare, Fresno and Kings counties, which are home to more than 400 crops that pump $30 billion into the economy and help sustain U.S. food security.

In January, the farmland trust released a report projecting that by 2050 more than 570,000 acres across the region could be lost to development as the Central California population explodes. Farmland losses due to housing, solar development, a warming climate, cyclical drought and ongoing farm water rationing to protect endangered fish, plus the state’s signature transportation project – the High Speed Rail – are all issues the trust is trying to monitor.

“These are things that don’t make headlines, but come under the category that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone,” Thompson said.

No statewide plan or policy exists to direct projects to areas where land is marginal for farming and power transmission lines exist or can be easily routed, though groups as diverse as the Defenders of Wildlife and the independent state oversight agency Little Hoover Commission have issued studies calling for one.

Projects are approved by elected county boards of supervisors, or if larger than 50 MW, the California Energy Commission.

“There’s no consistent approach” county to county in deciding what gets approved on farmland, said Kate Kelly, a planning consultant who is studying the environmental impact of valley projects for Defenders of Wildlife.

While one of the nation’s leading solar trade groups has not taken an official position on conversion of farmland to solar, Katherine Gensler of the Solar Energy Industries Association says more thought must go into location.

The largest solar facility operating so far covers 500 acres 60 miles northwest of Bakersfield and produces enough electricity for 36,000 homes.

Just three weeks into 2013, five valley farmers have told the Department of Conservation that they want to cancel low agriculture tax rate contracts to develop solar on their property. None takes advantage of a year-old law making it easier to cancel on marginal land, Penberth said.

County boards of supervisors are attracted to the promise of clean energy construction jobs. Some of the projects are on prime land as small as 20 acres, some on habitat shared by threatened or endangered species such as the kit fox, Swainson’s hawk and blunt nose lizard. The 9,000-acre Maricopa Sun project in western Kern County is on prime land that the county says lacks a reliable water supply.

Almost always developers chose sites because there’s a willing seller in the vicinity of existing transmission lines, experts say.

Transmission is the biggest reason for the holdup of a massive project that energy planners, agriculture interests and environmentalists agree is perfectly situated – the Westlands Solar Park in remote Kings and Fresno counties. It’s planned for 47 square miles of farmland fallowed because of high levels selenium in the soil.

Developers say the project ultimately could provide 2.7 gigawatts of electricity – enough for 2.7 million homes. But the wait for approval from the California Independent System Operator to tap into transmission lines for a large project proved too long so they got out. For now.

“We realized it would be a seven-to-10 year process,” said Joshua Martin, the solar company’s chief financial officer. “We could easily have spent $7 million in fees to stay in line, but it doesn’t make good business sense. It’s a messy market right now and things need to calm down.”

Ten years might be wishful thinking. An email the ISO sent to stakeholders on Jan. 18 said that it could be 12 years or longer before the needed upgrades in transmission infrastructure could be complete for solar projects currently waiting for transmission hookups in the Fresno area.

Westlands Solar Park is betting that environmental obstacles and connection costs will force many of the projects in the pipeline statewide to be abandoned. But what they’re hoping in the meantime is that state regulators eventually will direct solar development away from prime farmland.

Next month the California Energy Commission is set to make a move in that direction with adoption of a report that will recommend a coordinated approach placing solar in “zones with minimal environmental or habitat value,” near existing or planned electric system infrastructure. The agency would also collaborate with the Department of Conservation to identify areas of the state with marginal land.

Martin says the move likely is too late to help the projects that are stalled and in danger of missing out on federal tax incentives that expire in 2016.

“Someone needs to take a role and say what lines should be built and which aren’t in the state’s best interest,” said Martin. “So far we have been underwhelmed.”


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Loss of Stature for Giant

December 12, 2012
In this 2009 photo released by Steve Sillett, The President, a Giant Sequoia Tree, is shown in Sequoia National Park, Calif. After 3,240 years the Giant Sequoia is still growing wider at a consistent rate, which may be what most surprised the scientists examining how they and coastal redwoods will be impacted by climate change and whether they have a role to play in combatting it.

 In this 2009 photo released by Steve Sillett, The President, a Giant Sequoia Tree, is shown in Sequoia National Park, Calif. After 3,240 years the Giant Sequoia is still growing wider at a consistent rate, which may be what most surprised the scientists examining how they and coastal redwoods will be impacted by climate change and whether they have a role to play in combatting it. / Steve Sillett
Written by The Associated Press

Deep in the Sierra Nevada, the famous General Grant giant sequoia tree is suffering its loss of stature in silence.

What once was the world’s No. 2 biggest tree has been supplanted thanks to the most comprehensive measurements taken of the largest living things on Earth. The new No. 2 is The President, a 54,000-cubic-foot gargantuan not far from the Grant in Sequoia National Park.

After 3,240 years, the giant sequoia still is growing wider at a consistent rate, which may be what most surprised the scientists examining how the sequoias and coastal redwoods will be affected by climate change and whether these trees have a role to play in combatting it.

“I consider it to be the greatest tree in all of the mountains of the world,” said Stephen Sillett, a redwood researcher whose team from Humboldt State University is seeking to mathematically assess the potential of California’s iconic trees to absorb planet-warming carbon dioxide.

The researchers are a part of the 10-year Redwoods and Climate Change Initiative funded by the Save the Redwoods League in San Francisco. The measurements of The President, reported in the current National Geographic, dispelled the previous notion that the big trees grow more slowly in old age.

It means, the experts say, the amount of carbon dioxide they absorb during photosynthesis continues to increase over their lifetimes.

In addition to painstaking measurements of every branch and twig, the team took 15 half-centimeter-wide core samples of The President to determine its growth rate, which they learned was stunted in the abnormally cold year of 1580 when temperatures in the Sierra hovered near freezing even in the summer and the trees remained dormant.

But that was an anomaly, Sillett said. The President adds about one cubic meter of wood a year during its short six-month growing season, making it one of the fastest-growing trees in the world. Its 2 billion leaves are thought to be the most of any tree on the planet, which would also make it one of the most efficient at transforming carbon dioxide into nourishing sugars during photosynthesis.

“We’re not going to save the world with any one strategy, but part of the value of these great trees is this contribution and we’re trying to get a handle on the math behind that,” Sillett said.

After the equivalent of 32 working days dangling from ropes in The President, Sillett’s team is closer to having a mathematical equation to determine its carbon conversion potential, as it has done with some less famous coastal redwoods. The team has analyzed a representative sample that can be used to model the capacity of the state’s signature trees.

More immediately, however, the new measurements could lead to a changing of the guard in the land of giant sequoias. The park would have to update signs and brochures — and someone is going to have to correct the Wikipedia entry for “List of largest giant sequoias,” which still has The President at No. 3.

Now at 93 feet in circumference and with 45,000 cubic feet of trunk volume and another 9,000 cubic feet in its branches, the tree named for President Warren G. Harding is about 15 percent larger than Grant, also known as America’s Christmas Tree. Sliced into one-foot by one-foot cubes, The President would cover a football field.

Giant sequoias grow so big and for so long because their wood is resistant to the pests and disease that dwarf the lifespan of other trees, and their thick bark makes them impervious to fast-moving fire.

It’s that resiliency that makes sequoias and their taller coastal redwood cousin worthy of intensive protections — and even candidates for cultivation to pull carbon from an increasingly warming atmosphere, Sillett said. Unlike white firs, which easily die and decay to send decomposing carbon back into the air, rot-resistant redwoods stay solid for hundreds of years after they fall.

Though sequoias are native to California, early settlers traveled with seedlings back to the British Isles and New Zealand, where a 15-foot diameter sequoia that is the world’s biggest planted tree took root in 1850. Part of Sillett’s studies involves modeling the potential growth rate of cultivated sequoia forests to determine over time how much carbon sequestering might increase.

All of that led him to a spot 7,000 feet high in the Sierra and to The President, which he calls “the ultimate example of a giant sequoia.” Compared to the other giants whose silhouettes are bedraggled by lightning strikes, The President’s crown is large with burly branches that are themselves as large as tree trunks.

The world’s biggest tree is still the nearby General Sherman with about 2,000 cubic feet more volume than the President, but to Sillett it’s not a contest.

“They’re all superlative in their own way,” Sillett said.


Reconnecting with the land and nature this season!

November 27, 2012

Christmas is a time for giving, and a time for family. What a great opportunity to start a family tradition of giving back to the earth and instilling the values of sustainable living to your children, friends and community. Start an annual, earth-friendly Christmas family tradition! It will also get you outdoors for a few hours to build an appetite for the big dinner.

Annual Christmas Day Bird Count

Take your binoculars, a field guide to local birds, a small pad or journal for each participant and walk a course through your neighborhood, local park or countryside. Try to identify and count every bird you see, and make a note of it in your journal. At the end of the hike, list the species seen and number of birds per species. There’s always a surprising discovery, and the activity highlights the presence and value of our feathered friends.

Compare the results from former years and you’ll become experts on your local bird population and migration habits. This is a great family activity because even the youngest eyes are just as good at spotting the birds and contributing to the event.

Family nature hike

A peaceful walk through nature on Christmas day will be remembered and valued more than the score of the football game. Plan your walk before the holiday meal while everyone still has lots of energy. The walk will also pique appetites and provide a shared topic for conversation during mealtime.

Nature restoration activity

Planting a small tree together symbolizes the value of nature and offsets the ‘taking’ of the Christmas tree. An hour spent cleaning up or enhancing a natural area also enriches the giver and acknowledges nature as the source of our well-being.

Decorate a tree for the birds

Place seed bells, suet, pine cones with peanut butter and seed trays on any tree in your yard, preferably a tree in the open where cats can be seen easily by the birds. Yo attract a wide variety of birds, use varied seed types such as black oil sunflower seed, wild bird mixed seed and nyger seed bells. This is a great activity for kids, and offers an important food source for birds during the winter.

February 27, 2012

Naturalist Training offered on local Preserve!

 The education team at Sequoia Riverlands Trust is leading a naturalist training course on Saturday, March 3rd at 2 pm at Kaweah Oaks Preserve. Trained naturalists will then take part in field trips with Visalia area elementary students. Education Director Laura Childers says the naturalists will play a crucial role in connecting kids with nature. “Many kids today haven’t spent a great deal of time outdoors exploring nature, these field trips will give them hands-on experience in the outside world.” Volunteers will be trained in the basics of nature education and learn what a typical field trip day involves. Childers and SRT’s new AmeriCorps volunteer Lizzy Cantor have prepared nature activities including games, nature hikes, insect safaris, and a wildlife show and tell. Resources and materials will be provided to guides who will have opportunity to shadow naturalists during field trips before leading their own group. The training is free and open to anyone 18 or older who is available for weekday field trips. Trips usually last a couple of hours and are scheduled on weekday mornings and afternoons. Those who love the outdoors and sharing that enthusiasm with kids are encouraged to attend!

Contact Laura Childers at or 559 738 0211 ex 103 for more information.

February 24, 2012

Protecting Prime Farmland: a win-win



An effective way to protect valley farming tradition

Opinion piece by The Bakersfield Californian

Kern County farmland is not merely an economic engine for a region that otherwise struggles. It also plays a critical role in supplying the world with food. That’s something to be proud of, and something to protect. Holly King, Keith Gardiner and their families get this. The families’ ranch, which comprises more than 1,000 acres of prime farmland between Wasco and Shafter, was recently put into a farmland trust, meaning it can never be used for anything but farming. This was accomplished through an agricultural easement — selling the development rights on the property to the Sequoia Riverlands Trust, a nonprofit based in Visalia dedicated to conserving the region’s natural and agricultural legacy. The farm benefits from converting some of the property’s value to cash and the trust then “extinguishes” the development rights. King and Gardiner still own the land and can pass it on to their families and retain full control over their farming operations. But it can never be converted to ranchettes, tract homes or shopping plazas. Agricultural easements are a great tool in fighting farmland loss, which has occurred locally at a startling rate. Yet the easement for Gardiner and King’s ranch was the first of its kind in Kern County. We have to wonder why. “Farming is a quality of life that’s important to us. It expresses the values that we have as a family and we’ve always believed that the world needs food, and we need farmland to produce it,” King said. Surely there are other farmers and ranchers who share her view. It’s hard to fathom in a housing slump, but the Central Valley is projected to see astounding growth in the coming decades. Protecting farmland is an important effort in planning for our future. These families are doing their part to protect the farming tradition. Other farmers should consider doing so as well.


February 23, 2012

Conservation Easement Celebration perks interests from area ranchers, farmers, business and civic leaders.

Trust protects more Wasco farmland from development

BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer

WASCO — A host of civic and business leaders gathered Wednesday to celebrate the expansion of a trust that permanently shields a large swath of Wasco farmland from development.

The Sequoia Riverlands Trust is a conservation program that uses public and private money to protect farmland, ranch land and natural habitat. Two years ago, the trust acquired an easement that prevented 472 acres of farmland in Wasco from being converted to non-agricultural use, the first such acquisition ever in Kern County. This week, the adjoining 571 acres also were added to the trust.

Both properties are owned by Wasco 1 Real Properties, an agricultural partnership between Keith Gardiner, Holly King and members of their extended families.

“We were all born and raised in farming,” King said at a dedication ceremony on the land, which is located on Kimberlina Road west of Highway 99. “It’s a quality of life that is important to us. It expresses the values that we have as a family, and we’ve always believed that the world needs food, and we need farmland to produce it.”

All property ownership comes with a set of rights that can be sold all at once when land changes hands, or individually. It may have water rights, mineral rights, development rights and other assets.

The Sequoia Riverlands Trust is a nonprofit organization based in Visalia that acquires development rights to land in Kern, Fresno, King and Tulare counties.

“We purchase the development rights and then extinguish them,” said President Scott Spear. “There’s no secondary market.”

The arrangement, then, isn’t like the Williamson Act, which is a contract preventing farmers from developing their land for a given period of time — usually 10 years — and receive a break on property taxes in return.

“This is a permanent obligation,” said Don Drysdale, a spokesman for the California Department of Conservation. “Once you’re in, you’re committed.”

The trust gets funding for easements from private donors and state and federal agencies. In all cases, land owners sell their rights voluntarily.

The California Department of Conservation’s Farmland Conservancy Program paid the Wasco partnership nearly $2.9 million for the first easement two years ago, and joined forces with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program to pay more than $1 million for the latest easement.

That wasn’t enough for the value of the rights, so the owners donated another $1.02 million to the cause, which Gardiner said will help offset capital gains taxes.

The size of the payments were determined by subtracting the value of development rights from the overall value of the land, Spear said.

The Wasco partnership retains other forms of ownership of the land and is free to plant whatever it chooses. At the moment, both farms primarily are planted with almonds.

The trust will regularly inspect the land, which once was owned by President Herbert Hoover, to make sure it’s not surreptitiously taken out of food production.

Some limited building is allowed under the terms of the agreement. A farmhouse would be permitted, or a farm store. But anything that does not “enhance the ability to produce food” would not be allowed, Spear said.

The state’s Farmland Conservancy Program has provided $77.4 million in funding to protect 52,293 acres of vulnerable farmland from development since the program began in 1996.

“Most people don’t appreciate how important agriculture is to Kern County, so it’s really important that we protect it,” said Ben McFarland, executive director of the Kern County Farm Bureau.

The gross value of all agricultural commodities produced in Kern was almost $4.8 billion in 2010, according to the Kern County Department of Agriculture and Measurement Standards.

Even though the families that own the land in Wasco had no plans to take it out of production, the acreage was considered at risk because the property could potentially have been split into so-called ranchettes for people working in Bakersfield but desiring a rural homestead, Spear said. There are estate-sized lots of 10 to 20 acres south of Wasco and north of Shafter.

“We’re not anti-development, we’re pro-farmland,” Spear said. “We work with nearby city jurisdictions to go where they’re not going to go.”

Gardiner said he’ll use the easement money to pay down debt and mitigate against the risks inherent in farming.

“The main thing is to make sure this land is here for future generations,” he said. “This is great property. Good land, good water, good soil.”




Preparation is key to happy, healthy plants!

February 2, 2012

Keeping your plants alive and thriving in dry conditions;  SRT experts give tips to Visalia Times-Delta readers.

Dry Creek Preserve, photo John Greening