By Christina B. Farnsworth. No-growth fans are lauding the "farmland security perimeter" in Madera, Calif. Funded through an initiative of the American Farmland Trust, farmers have been paid to keep their farms out of the reach of home developers.

The Madera story began around 1998 when Denis Prosperi made a deal to sell 40 acres of his farm to a home builder for $22,500 an acre. Put simply, his neighbors protested and let him know they didn't think he should sell.

In August 2002, Prosperi and some of his neighbors did sell, but not to a home builder. Instead, they sold the development rights to the American Farmland Trust. The farmers, who received roughly $16,000 an acre in cash and tax incentives, maintain ownership of the land and will continue farming it. And now, the "Madera preserve" is permanently set aside for use as farmland; no homes, offices, or retail can be built on the land. The multi-million-dollar sale creates a farmland security perimeter intended to "block urban construction on the protected properties." The result is a bucolic eight-mile square where grapes and other crops grow. The land in the preserve was definitely in the path of growth. Some of it bumped up to Madera's western edge, but it was still prime farmland.

Erik Vink, assistant director of conservation for the California Department of Conservation, says the most unique aspect of the Madera transaction was that the farmers grouped together to gain permanent protection under the California Farmland Conservancy Program. In other places farmland trusts have purchased individual farms; Vink thinks this is one of the first in which the farmers formed a collective to do a multi-farm deal.

Don Drysdale, spokesperson for the California Department of Conservation, says the sale was paid for by a combination of federal and state grant funds. (California's funds are bond funds.) The American Farmland Trust approached the state, and the state contributed $2.2 million to the deal, the largest agricultural preservation the state has done to date, Drysdale says. The rest of the funds came from $1.1 million in federal monies, and the farmers also contributed, he says, by accepting $1.5 million less than the land's appraised value to keep their land in agriculture. Vink thinks use of the programs to preserve prime agricultural land will increase because funding is available through a variety of sources and farmers are interested in keeping their lands as farms.

As the deal progressed, both the city and county of Madera passed resolutions supporting the creation of the farmland security perimeter despite the fact that the area is growing fast. Presently, more than 40 percent of Madera County is used for agricultural purposes, but the area's population is expected to grow from 124,300 to 203,200 by 2020. The Madera conservation area is one of five under consideration along the Highway 99 corridor. Further north, the Yolo Land Trust is working on a deal to preserve a three-by-five-mile area between Davis and Woodland, Calif.

Both state and federal governments have funding plans in place and are working to preserve farmlands throughout the nation. Drysdale says that every year in the United States, farmland the size of the state of Delaware goes out of production. But agriculture in California is especially important, not only economically -- it is a $30 billion a year industry -- but also, Drysdale says, because there may be as many as 30 crops grown in California that grow nowhere else in the United States.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Madera, CA, Los Angeles, CA.