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The real future of California farming is along Highway 33

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POSTED July 10, 2013 12:58 a.m.

(Editor’s note: Dennis Wyatt is on vacation. This column appeared in June of 2003.)

The future of agriculture starts a mile or so south of Airport Way and the Highway 120 Bypass.

It is here along Airport Way where no developer can piece together enough land nor bankroll the cost of flood protection from the epicenter of all things political in California water wars — Vernalis — where the San Joaquin and Stanislaus rivers converge.

Flooding here just isn’t by chance. It is a certainty. Eleven times since 1929 the levees along the rivers have failed, flooding upwards of 45 square miles south of Manteca like clockwork.

It is here where dairies reign supreme. You’ll find some row crops, plenty of pumpkins, orchards and even a stately vineyard or two. This is the transition land where those yearning for small acreage in the country snap up any available parcel that has preceded San Joaquin County’s aggressive 20-acre minimum parcel rule adopted in the late 1980s.

Keep driving south along Airport Way and you’ll cross the San Joaquin River and into history. It is where the real stand for the future of agriculture must take place.

A jog to the left from Kasson Road and you’ll pass what is left of San Joaquin City — historical marker. San Joaquin City was once a bustling river port in the late 19th century where river barges transferred cargo to ships and wagons brought harvests to the docks.

San Joaquin City disappeared for the same reason other settlements that once were booming failed to take hold. It was in the wrong place. Railroads passed them by as did key state highways. Once, simply being located on a major waterway assured a town of survival. That wasn’t the case in the late 19th century when the rules of civilization changed. Mechanized trade — the railroads and eventually the automobile — changed the patterns of community building.

Kasson Road eventually takes you to Highway 132 where a short drive to the west will hook you up with Highway 33.

Jack Tone Road east of Manteca at times sees more traffic than Highway 33.

The narrow asphalt ribbon cuts through the gut of the Northern San Joaquin Valley. The preferred path of travel to get anywhere other than around the sleepy towns — or wide spots in the road — that appear every five miles or so are connector roads to Interstate 5, the nation’s only freeway that connects Canada to Mexico.

It is in towns like Westley, Gustine and Newman that small town stores still survive as the communities they serve are too small for the Wal-Marts of the world – even though the pull of commerce centers such as Modesto, Turlock and Merced beckon to the east.

This is where agriculture thrives. Urbanization isn’t a big issue here. Farm prices are.

Patterson is growing with 20,500 souls, of which many get into their cars before dawn and head to the job rich Bay Area either via Altamont Pass or Pacheco Pass.

Highway 33 connects the West Side farm communities. Orchards, row crops, alfalfa blur together in an endless mosaic.

The West Side — a regional moniker that makes obvious reference to this part of the Northern San Joaquin Valley being on the western end of the world’s greatest valley in terms of size and harvest — is where you’ll find an equally impressive manmade feature. The California Aqueduct sends a river of water daily toward Southern California and the massive corporate farms of the Southern San Joaquin Valley’s western edge.

It is here along Highway 33 and similar places in the Central Valley where efforts should be undertaken to protect agriculture in earnest.

Pressures will come one day. It isn’t too far-fetched to see Gustine become a favored commute to the University of California at Merced or for the other towns to start swelling as industrial/distribution jobs start coming to Tracy, Lathrop, Manteca, Stockton and Modesto in greater numbers.

This is where the state needs to apply radical policies such as severe development restrictions in exchange for freeing farmland from taxes. It is far cheaper and effective to reimburse counties for lost general county property taxes in a scheme exchanging taxes for locked on land use for ag than it is to try to bankroll ag conservatory areas with state funds that end up getting no more than a pea protected on the huge buffet table of California agriculture.

The real question is whether California’s leaders have the guts and foresight to protect the Northern San Joaquin Valley’s teeming ag region and those elsewhere that have yet to come in major conflict with urbanization patterns.

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209-249-3519.

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