Rural Sprawl Momentum and the Demise of Grazing — Is It Inevitable?

The current agricultural use maps show the great extent of current grazing in the Sacramento Watershed as reported by agricultural commissioners. Is this industry at risk?

In a panel presentation reported in Agriculture in the Sacramento Region: Trends and Prospects published by the UC Agricultural Issues Center, the following breakdown of ranch sizes describes the industry in California:

  • 3% of the total cattle in the state are on 15,400 ranchettes with from 1 to 49 head
  • 16% are on 3,400 ranches with 100 to 499 head
  • 17% are on 1,100 ranches with 500 to 999 head
  • 61% are on 1,200 ranches with 1,000 head and more

The first category is noted as "ranchettes." The farm size and number of head indicate that these small operations are "hobby farms." This fits the definition of exurban growth, as the principle economic relationship of the resident is not the farm income, but the urban-related off farm income (including retirees).

Panel member Chuck Bacchi, El Dorado rancher, stated this with regard to the statistics: "The ranches in the last three categories are in peril, since they are large enough that ranching must be a full time job … these the smaller cow/calf operations are at risk, since it is difficult to generate enough income to make a living." Simply stated, the last category of ranches with 1,000 or more head reach an economy of scale that can be viable in an ever increasingly competitive international market for cattle. Smaller operations may not be competitive unless they have a market niche bringing higher profits.

In addition to the marketplace challenge, the average age of farmers across the board is reaching 60 years-old. The Nevada County Resource Conservation District reported that the average age of ranchers in that county is 65 years old. Few children of ranchers are willing to take over the business; retiring ranchers are faced with selling the asset. County Farm Bureaus have been challenged to take firm positions opposing agricultural land conversion because their membership is sadly split between wanting the farming operation to continue and having to reserve the right to sell to the highest bidder to garner its value.

Rural Sprawl Momentum

Below the Delta and the federal and state pumping plants, water is the principal limiting factor for exurban sprawl. This is not the case for the Sacramento Valley and much of the Sierra foothills in the Sacramento Watershed. The groundwater basin in the Sacramento Valley recharges readily from the normally abundant rainfall in Northern California. In only a few areas has groundwater depletion become problematic, like in eastern Sacramento County where urban and medium density suburbs were allowed to develop solely reliant on groundwater pumping. Very likely, all the areas zoned for low density rural residential development have sufficient groundwater supplies.

Abundant groundwater resources are the exception in California, where most development has depended on guarantees of imported water. Thus, when making predictions about the build-out of the Sacramento Watershed, it is not prudent to look at the patterns from Southern California where local water supplies were the limiting factor, or the Bay Area, where confined geography have restricted exurban rural residential growth. Other areas of the nation may provide more accurate models for the potential of exurban build-out in the Sacramento Watershed.

Bruegmann shows changes in exurban build-out in the Eastern U.S. over the past forty years in the two maps below. High levels of exurban growth are seen in almost the entire East. Water and wells are not a growth constraint there; nor are they a constraint in the Sacramento Valley or the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Both of these areas show significant exurban growth even on maps of this scale. For the balance of the West, the constraint of water supply can be readily surmised by the lack of exurban growth.