Vanishing farmland: Less and less of Merced County is devoted to agriculture

Agriculture may be the No. 1 industry in Merced County -- worth more than $3 billion -- but it's being done more and more on less and less land.

The USDA Economic Research Service released information in December that showed California had lost about 1,000 farms between 2006 and 2007.

That trend holds true in Merced County, according to information from the California Department of Conservation. In 2006, the county had lost almost 17,000 acres of prime farmland. That's the land that has the best soil quality, growing season and moisture supply needed to supply high yields of the crops being planted on it.

In addition to losing that prime land, more than 12,000 acres of grazing land were lost.

Don Drysdale, spokesman for the California Department of Conservation, said preliminary numbers being crunched for the years 2004 to 2006 show that Merced has seen 1,823 acres of new urbanization.

"It's happening all across the state," Drysdale said. "But with the current economic climate, that may change."

California as a whole lost 81,247 acres of prime farmland between 2004 and 2006, Drysdale said. Total ag land lost during that time was about 157,000 acres. The state gained more than 102,000 acres, or 160 square miles, of urban growth.

The fastest-growing areas of the state are Riverside and San Bernardino counties, where more than 23,000 acres were lost to urbanization, Drysdale said.

Merced County saw the number of acres converted to urbanization between 2004 and 2006 at about 3,600, Drysdale said.

Some of the "loss" of farmland can be attributed to forces other than urbanization. David Robinson, agriculture commissioner for Merced County, said farms in the county have been getting bigger, merging prime farmland with some lesser-rated land.

"When I started in this business about 20 years ago, there were a lot of small growers," Robinson said. "It seems that they are tending to merge into bigger farms now."

But Merced is still home to many small growers, making a living from land consisting of between 40 and 100 acres. Many of the county's almond orchards are located on smaller plots of land, and sweet potato farmers often own smaller acreages.

"One thing we've seen is that urban people will buy 40 acres of almonds, build a house and keep on farming the almonds," Robinson said.

There has also been loss of grazing land in the county. Most of that land didn't go to housing, but to more lucrative crops, such as vineyards or trees.

Robinson said that building houses on super-quality farmland and pushing farmers to the outer fringes of that land isn't the way the county should grow.

"We need to strike a balance between urban population growth and farmland," Robinson said. "Agriculture is the economic driver for this county, and we need to protect that resource."

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or