Merced farmers sell land to preserve agriculture

September 21, 2011 

LIVINGSTON — Jim and Colette Alvernaz of James C. Alvernaz Farms Inc., which farms sweet potatoes and rye on 211 acres of land on the southern edge of Livingston, just wanted to farm and be left alone.

So, a few years ago, they started the process of selling an ag conservation easement on the land his father — Joe "Sweet Potato Joe" Alvernaz — still owns to a land trust. This spring, the 211 acres of farmland was preserved as an easement. Sweet Potato Joe received $1.07 million for the easement sale, according to his son.

An ag conservation easement involves an agreement with the landowner and a deed on the property transferred by the land owner to the trust, according to Bill Martin, executive director of the Central Valley Farmland Trust, a nonprofit that has helped Alvernaz and others place ag conservation easements on their properties.

"The process is voluntary," he said. "No matter what happens to the land, if you decide to sell it, that's fine. Whoever buys it is subject to the ag conservation easement."

Alvernaz's stake and another in the county, the Bear Creek Ranch partnership, which is 244 acres between Highway 140 and Childs Avenue, are examples of farms where land will be preserved for generations because their owners chose the easement option.

From an agricultural standpoint, according to Martin, the farmers continue to do what they've always done on the land, which is farm it.

The trust holds the easement and protects it over time. The trust can't sell the easement to anybody. It's a way for landowners who want to keep their land and know it will have nothing but ag production on it, Martin said.

To be selected as an ag easement, it has to be irrigated prime farmland on the Valley floor, which eliminates grazing land, and must be large enough to be economically viable as a farming unit. If the criteria fit, the trust does a summary of the property and holds discussions with state and federal funding agencies.

Then the trust asks the agencies if funding can be secured. Based on that feedback, the trust asks the landowner to pay for an appraisal.

To date, there have been 28 easements totaling about 12,500 acres across four counties: Merced, San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Sacramento, Martin said.

The Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, part of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, contributed 50 percent of the funding, and the California Farmland Conservancy Program, part of the state's Department of Conservation, contributed the rest.

For 10 years, Jim Alvernaz has been farming the land his father bought in the 1960s. A few years back, he said, part of Livingston's plan was to put in a sewer line that was going to go right next to the property.

"It was coming right at me," Alvernaz said. "They had plans here, they make all these plans and don't tell you. We felt threatened by the potential growth."

One measure of protection against encroachment is an ag easement, Alvernaz said. "This is a very special area right here. We want to keep farming and be left alone," he said, as he stood outside a storage shed on Magnolia Avenue on Tuesday afternoon.

Last year, he harvested 24 tons of sweet potatoes an acre, and has 100 acres of sweet potatoes. The rest of the acreage is rye. Thirty-three people worked on the harvest this year.

Meanwhile, the partnership that owns the Bear Creek Ranch Partnership received a little more than $1 million and donated a portion of the easement to the Central Valley Farmland Trust, said John Colbert, who is one of 10 partners. The ranch partnership grows almonds.

"There was certainly a financial incentive to do it," Colbert said. He said it would allow plenty of room for the city of Merced to grow, but preserve a lot of farmland for Planada. "It's a great piece of farmland and it should be for the foreseeable future," Colbert said.

For more information, please call the Central Valley Farmland Trust at (916) 687-3178.

Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or abutt@mercedsunstar.com.

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