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Farmers Say Elimination of “Williamson Act” Is A Financial Blow

— Rural counties and farmers are worried about the protection of agricultural land in California.

Governor Schwarzenegger recently used his line-item veto authority to eliminate nearly all state funding for the "Williamson Act” to cope with a massive budget deficit.

Under the act, farmers get property tax relief from the county and the county is reimbursed for its lost revenues by the state.

Robert Ramming drives a tractor around his 40-acre farm near the town of Woodland. It’s a small family operation with a fitting name: “Pacific Star Gardens.”

“That’s what we are standing in the midst of, a little parcel here of sweet potatoes, tomatoes, a little patch of summer squash, we have strawberries and about a half acre of apricot orchard.”

Ramming has been growing organic produce here with his wife and four children for the past 15 years. He’s barely getting by, but the Williamson Act has helped out because it keeps his taxes affordable.

“On the land portion of our property taxes we’re paying about a thousand dollars a year. If we didn’t have the tax protection, then I guess, we’d be at triple that. Possibly six times that," he said. "And, we’re a shoestring operation so it would eat up about 30 to 40 percent of our profits.”

Counties are also worried about their bottom line. The governor’s cut leaves them without the state money they use to offset the tax breaks for farmers.

Rick Landon, Yolo County’s Agricultural Commissioner, said, “The county has been receiving $1.3 million subvention from the state. That’s for putting over 400,000 acres of land into Williamson Act. That’s actually an incentive to the county to keep its land in agriculture. That’s actually more than they would get if it's taxed at its market value.”

There are about 600 farms in Yolo County. Landon estimates they contribute more than a half-billion dollars to the local economy each year. Farmers fear the counties won’t renew the contracts.

In fact, next month, some farmers plan to ask the Yolo County board of supervisors to use county funds to keep the Williamson Act alive locally. But, Yolo County is also dealing with a budget crunch.

Money is not the only worry. Some are concerned about losing open space.

John Young, Yolo County’s deputy agriculture commissioner, said, "“So, barring profitable agriculture, what you’re going to see is a lot of ground turned into development acres.

“When a developer comes in they’ll propose a project, it may include a strip mall or some other kind of development, there’s a number of things that could happen, it’s going to be based on the ability of that developer to make the most money that he can on the number of acres that he wants to convert.”

Democratic State Senator Lois Wolk lives in Yolo County and she’s trying to find alternative funding for the Williamson Act because she knows counties are hurting too.

“This is not the first time the governor has tried to cut the Williamson Act," she said. "He’s tried to do it two other times since I’ve been in the legislature and we’ve been able to fight back. However, this year given the budget, we weren’t able to be successful. I think it’s important to try to reform the Williamson act, to strengthen it.”

Back at the farm, Robert Ramming holds a handful of moist dirt up to his nose and takes a big sniff...

“You can talk about it all you want but it doesn’t really mean anything unless you put your fingers into it. You can smell it,” said Ramming.

Ramming says the soil in Yolo County is some of the best in California, and he’s afraid that’ll be lost without the Williamson Act

“Despite all of our advanced farming technologies, it still comes down to having a good soil," said Ramming. "The basis for a good civilization. And, we’re very fortunate to have it here.”

Lisa Paige, a spokeswoman with Governor Schwarzenegger’s office, said the governor would have liked to have saved the Williamson Act. But, she said he was forced to make the cut so the state would have an adequate reserve fund for emergencies.

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