Can Solar Energy and Farming Get Along?

Renewable energy projects are on the rise in California’s San Joaquin Valley—but more energy means less food production.

Energy development is encroaching on farming regions in central Calif. (Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Food vs. fuel: It turns out the tug-o-war between the two isn’t only a story about biofuels and our nation’s ethanol mandate. It’s also a tale about producing clean, green energy, which is putting some of California’s most productive farmland at risk.

According to a report released last month by the American Farmland Trust (AFT), 61 percent of all development in California’s San Joaquin Valley is taking place on high-quality farmland. By 2050, the nonprofit group that monitors farmland and development trends says nearly 570,000 acres of farmland could be lost. A notable culprit? Solar energy.

The Associated Press reports there are currently 227 proposed solar projects in California, and plenty more applications pending.

“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,” writes AP reporter Tracie Cone. Plus, “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.”

Part of the solar rush stems from a California law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in April 2011. The state’s ambitious energy mandate requires 33 percent of California’s electricity be produced from renewable sources like wind and solar power by 2020.

But no one seems to have a good handle on just how much farmland is being taking out of food production and transformed into solar power projects; there’s no official accounting. The California Department of Conservation says they were unable to track development because of budget cuts, and few individual communities within the San Joaquin Valley are monitoring the expansion. The productivity of the farmland, however, is well documented. According to the AFT report, “Many of the nation’s top producing agricultural counties are located in the Valley, with Fresno, Tulare and Kern in the top three statewide.”

“The general plans of most cities and counties reflect official commitments to encourage more efficient development on less productive land,” says Edward Thompson, Jr., American Farmland Trust California director in a statement. “But few communities are even keeping track of how well they are—or, in most cases, are not living up to their good intentions.”

It’s inevitable that when farmland is taken out of production, population figures increase. According to the report, the eight counties that make up the San Joaquin Valley are currently home to approximately four million people and over 400 different crops. By 2050, the number of residents is expected to double, while land available to grow food is projected to shrink by 500,000 acres over that same time period. Unless government officials begin to effectively measure land use and protect valuable farmland, the shift is expected to continue.

“The land use plans and policies of communities throughout the San Joaquin Valley are well-intentioned in calling for the avoidance of high quality farmland, developing land more efficiently, stabilizing the urban edge and preventing rural ‘ranchettes.’ Yet the record shows that, except in a few rare cases, not much actual progress has been made. One reason for this is almost certainly that few communities actually try to measure their progress or lack thereof. They adopt plans and policies, but don’t follow through to determine how well they are working,” concludes the report.

Realted stories on TakePart:

• Are We Already Farming Enough Land to Feed 9 Billion People?

• Can the Food Industry Kick Its Cheap Labor Habit?

• AB 1990: California Power Companies are Fighting This Solar Legislation. But That’s Not the Whole Story

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