New Study Says Repurposing Retired Farmland Around Disadvantaged Communities in California’s Central Valley Would Benefit the Economy and Environment

Converting Cropland Would Create Jobs and Revenue for Landowners

Published Dec 5, 2022

Merced, Calif. (December 5, 2022)—As historic overuse of water resources and persistent drought forces more farmland retirement in California’s Central Valley, a new study finds that strategic land repurposing would preserve landowners’ revenue and create better-paying jobs in rural communities while decreasing pollution and overall water use.

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In the region known as the nation’s food basket, many low-income residents who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods also breathe dirty air and lack vital services such as sewage, health care and clean drinking water.

The study examines the benefits of creating one-mile buffer zones in and around 154 disadvantaged rural communities that could be used for solar energy and other clean industries, managed aquifer recharge projects, and parks and wildlife corridors to help restore degraded ecosystems.

Increasingly, farm owners are allowing fields to go fallow or retiring swaths of land due to a lack of water to sustain certain crops. The study estimates that failing to repurpose retired cropland would lead to potential losses in the Central Valley of up to $4.2 billion a year and 25,682 jobs.

“This is an opportunity for a positive change to achieve climate resilience and environmental justice for communities that have traditionally been underrepresented and underserved,” said Jose Pablo Ortiz Partida, one of the study’s authors and senior bilingual water and climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Investing an average of $27 million per community annually on new sustainable projects for 10 years, according to the study, could generate up to $15.6 billion a year over 30 years for the entire Central Valley and 62,697 new jobs that pay significantly more than farm work.

Other benefits of this approach, the study says, include significant reductions in groundwater overdraft, nitrate leaching, greenhouse gas emissions, and the use of pesticides.

“Our study demonstrates that it can be financially beneficial for landowners and industry investors to engage in strategic cropland repurposing that creates socioeconomic opportunities and a cleaner environment for marginalized communities,” said study author Angel Santiago Fernandez-Bou, a scientist at the University of California, Merced.