Planning for progress
July/Aug. 2010 California Country magazine
Story by Christine Souza
Photos by Paolo Vescia
Farmers advocate transportation, energy projects with the least disruption to food production
Proposed routes for the California High-Speed Rail
Source: California High-Speed Rail Authority. Current as of press time.
Route 1: Travels along the Burlington Northern/Santa Fe Railway line east of Highway 99.
Route 2: Parallels Highway 99 and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks.
Route 3: Cuts through farms and ranches west of Highway 99. After evaluating potential disruptions to food and farm production, the California High-Speed Rail Authority eliminated this route from further consideration.
Jeff Marchini's family has tended the land for nearly 90 years, growing almonds, tomatoes and vegetable crops in the heart of California's Central Valley. The third-generation farmer takes pride in his family's agricultural contributions and is working with his father and two sons to continue to thrive in agriculture. But he worries that their ability to provide food will be compromised if the proposed California high-speed rail system cuts through his Merced County farmland.
As California's population swells from the current 39 million to an expected 55 million by 2050, government officials must plan to expand and improve transportation, energy, water and other systems.
If the route that travels along the Burlington Northern/Santa Fe Railway line is selected for California's high-speed rail network, the almond orchard of Nic Marchini and father Jeff would be uprooted.
The Marchinis, who live in Le Grande, are one of many farm families in the state faced with the possibility of losing land because of pending infrastructure projects. Farmers and ranchers say they support the new projects, but that they should be constructed in ways that minimize disruptions to food and farm production.
In his case, Marchini said one of the proposed routes for the high-speed rail system—the route that parallels the Burlington Northern/Santa Fe Railway, east of Highway 99— "would be devastating to farmland and families in our community. There is no reason to disrupt all of this productive agriculture and associated businesses that have been here for many years, especially when a better option remains on the table."
That better option, he said, is a route that aligns with Highway 99 and the existing Union Pacific Railroad tracks. Marchini and other Central Valley farmers say that route would pose the fewest agricultural impacts of the routes proposed for the Merced-to-Fresno segment of the project.
Approved by California voters in 2008, the high-speed rail network would stretch for 800 miles and connect Los Angeles to San Francisco. About 300 miles of the route are expected to slice through the Central Valley, one of the most productive farming regions in the world.
This spring, the state agency planning the future high-speed rail network eliminated one potential route for the trains, which would have ended farming on hundreds of acres of productive Central Valley farmland. But the agency continues to consider a different route that would have a direct impact on Marchini and other farmers.
Nishman and Larry Knapp move horses across the Burlington Northern/Santa Fe Railway tracks, which is currently a simple process. They say a high-speed rail line on this route would disrupt access to their horses and cattle.
That route would require many of Marchini's almond trees to be uprooted. It would also eliminate the Live Oak Farms packing facility in Le Grand owned by his relatives in the Giampaoli family. Live Oak Farms, which packs and sells tomatoes and bell peppers, was started by the Marchinis and Giampaolis in 1939, shipping vine-ripened tomatoes to Chicago and New York City. Live Oak Farms now ships 2.5 million cases of vegetables each year.
"My grandfather came to the valley from Italy in search of a better life in 1923. After the turmoil of World War I, Florindo Marchini found a safe haven in Le Grand where he could raise a family and make a livelihood," Marchini said.
Marchini's father Joe remembers growing his first few acres of tomatoes in 1953 down the street from his home in Le Grand. He was 13.
"I am proud of the success that our family has experienced and I believe that in Le Grand, where my father started farming with the Giampaolis, a bright future exists for everyone," Joe Marchini said. "We encourage the High-Speed Rail Authority to select a route that will enable our small communities to thrive rather than hurt agriculture and family businesses."
A few miles south of Le Grand near the border of Merced and Madera counties, the Knapp family operates Lazy K Ranch, a horse and cattle ranch that straddles the same high-speed rail route that threatens the Marchinis' farm.
Mike and Sherry Knapp, and their grown children Larry and Michele, say they are concerned that the project will greatly limit the access that they have to their livestock.
Mike and Sherry Knapp (center) run the ranch with son Larry and daughter-in-law Nishman and their son Noah (left) and daughter Michele and her daughters Kayne and Cameri (right).
"Currently there are several railroad crossings where we can just cross over on horseback to check the animals," Sherry Knapp said. "The high-speed rail would create a permanent barrier between one side of the ranch and the other, since the high-speed train will provide fewer crossings."
Sherry Knapp said the noise and vibrations brought by the high-speed trains—an estimated dozen trains an hour—would harm the ranch's livestock as well as the native wildlife that thrives on the property.
"We have mares foaling, so we feel that it (the high-speed rail system) would be disruptive to their natural environment," she said. "Plus, this is one of the most unique areas for native species. It has hardpan soil, which holds the vernal pools that serve as habitat for fairy shrimp and the California tiger salamander, some of the area's protected species."
The family, now in its third generation, is developing a conservation easement on their land, which will preserve the ranch from development.
"The conservation easement is a commitment from our family to make sure the property stays this way forever," Sherry Knapp said. "I recently watched two white herons fly up out of a vernal pool where they spend a lot of time fishing. You could see snow on the Sierra and the horses and cattle grazing nearby—it just takes your breath away."
Proposed routes for Tulare County transmission line
Southern California Edison’s proposed San Joaquin Cross Valley Loop project is being planned to meet the region’s growing demand for electricity.
Alternative 1: Edison’s preferred route. This would have the most adverse impacts on permanent orchard crops such as citrus and walnuts, which require several years and a large financial investment before they become productive.
Alternative 2: Would also be damaging to farmland, including some permanent crops.
Alternative 3: Would cut through some rangeland. Farmers say this is preferable to carving up agricultural properties and permanent crops.
Larry Knapp said he agrees with Marchini, that the route along Highway 99 and the Union Pacific tracks would be a more suitable option.
"Rather than consuming irreplaceable farmland, grazing land and federally protected vernal pools habitat, the responsible course of action is to parallel the high-speed rail with the Union Pacific Railroad," he said.
The state agency planning the system—known as the California High-Speed Rail Authority—is now conducting in-depth studies to decide which route it considers best. Construction on the high-speed rail system could begin as soon as next year.
While farmers in Merced County work to convince the high-speed rail agency to protect their farmland, farmers to the south in Tulare County find themselves at the center of a debate about a proposed electrical transmission line.
The electric utility Southern California Edison proposes the new line to meet the region's growing need for electricity. The transmission line, called the San Joaquin Cross Valley Loop, is about 23 miles long and would be constructed near Visalia.
"We are tracking a number of transmission line projects being proposed statewide and we urge that the utilities listen to the landowners," said Karen Norene Mills, a public utilities attorney for the California Farm Bureau Federation. "If the line is truly needed, we encourage that its development is done in such a way that results in the least harm to farmers and ranchers."
With her grandparents Jeanne and Ron Paregien, parents Shawn and Carmen and brother Jackson in the background, Alison Paregien shows off the fruits of the family’s labor in this walnut orchard, planted in the 1970s. The family risks losing 240 productive walnut trees should Edison’s Alternative 1 be routed through their property.
When a state commission released its final report on environmental impacts of the project, its selection of a proposed route included bad news for the Hengst family farm in Elderwood.
Fifth-generation farmer Bob Hengst, who farms with his son David, said the route goes directly over his family's well that irrigates about 230 acres of plums, oranges and pomegranates.
Although the state says it would require Edison to "replace or relocate" any wells that would be taken out by the route, Hengst said his well is irreplaceable because it was drilled several hundred feet down and then sideways in different directions to locate cracks where the water can come in.
"Around here it is really hard to get water, so it is a very productive well for our area," Hengst said. "Over the years we've tried to drill for water in different locations and have been unsuccessful."
Another route, one that Edison prefers, crisscrosses hundreds of acres of orchards and other private land, including crops farmed east of Visalia by fourth-generation farmer Ron Paregien.
"Edison's preferred route goes right through the middle of one of our walnut orchards and would take out about 240 trees," Paregien said. He said the project "would knock a hole in our production" and require him to drill a new well.
A third route proposed by Edison would impact rangeland on Paregien's farm, but he said that would be a better option because it would have the least impact on him and other local farmers.
"I would rather they go through our mountain property," said Paregien, whose family settled the ranch land in 1852. "We would lose a little bit to roads and maybe a couple of towers, but it would do a lot more damage going through the walnuts."
He stresses that he's not opposed to the construction of the new transmission line, but wants it to follow a route that results in fewer impacts to farms and ranches.
"Why destroy people's land and people's property value when you can go through the hills and not disturb anything? It is only common sense," he said.
"Our most basic infrastructure is the ability to feed ourselves," said Chris Scheuring, an environmental attorney for the California Farm Bureau Federation. "Prime agricultural land is tremendously important to all of us in California and we'll continue to work with farmers, ranchers and government agencies to make sure new infrastructure projects accommodate farms and ranches."
For more information
Many California farm families are faced with the possibility of losing land because of pending infrastructure projects, such as the proposed California high-speed rail system and Southern California Edison's San Joaquin Cross Valley Loop Transmission Project. Farmers and ranchers say they support the new projects, but that they should be constructed in ways that minimize disruptions to food and farm production.
To learn more about possible impacts to your local agricultural communities, read these articles from Ag Alert, the weekly newspaper of the California Farm Bureau:
Other sources of information:
Christine Souza is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or email@example.com.