Picking up the PACE: Preserving Agriculture in San Diego County


With over 5,000 small farms and 360 registered organic growers, San Diego County has the largest number of small farms in California and the highest number of organic farms in the country. Just head out to pick apples in Julian, peruse the rainbow of produce at a local farmers markets, or witness the influx of farm to table restaurants and you quickly see how agriculture and farming feed the local economy, particularly in unincorporated areas. Agriculture in San Diego County covers over 242,000 acres contributing $1.77 billion to the local economy.

But escalating land and water costs, paired with increased development pressure, force some farmers to sell their land to developers. In fact, county agriculture land has declined in the past decade. Between 2000-2015, the County lost about 10,000 acres of orchard trees such as avocados and citrus, which is estimated to contain one million trees. This is an estimated loss of 375,125 metric tons of greenhouse gas reductions. With the average age of county farmers 62 years old and fewer multi-generational families to continue the profession, keeping land in agricultural use is a pressing regional issue.

Not only does land in agriculture feed families and support communities, but working lands contribute to the storage and sequestering of carbon within soil. Planting orchard trees such as avocado and citrus trees has among the highest greenhouse gas reduction potential of any cropping system. In addition, preserving land in agriculture avoids the carbon emitting activity of new development and its associated travel, waste, water use, and energy consumption.  

To promote the long-term preservation of agriculture in the county, the County of San Diego created a pilot program called the Purchase of Agricultural Easements program or PACE in 2011, which became formally established in 2013. PACE pays willing landowners to place a permanent easement on their land to limit future use of the property for farming, ranching, or agriculture. Agricultural easements remain forever while the farmer receives compensation for the loss of development potential.

To date, the County has spent approximately $5.99 million to preserve 2,328 acres.  At a September 2019 Board of Supervisors meeting, the Board voted unanimously to pay nearly $690,000 to place permanent agricultural easements on 143 acres in Fallbrook and 155 acres near El Cajon. The owners will keep their property in use for grazing and to grow avocados, citrus and olives. 

The County’s Climate Action Plan, adopted in 2018, includes a measure that sets a specific target for annual agricultural easements. Climate Action Plan Measure T-1.2 aims to acquire 443 acres of agricultural easements annually with estimated carbon savings from preventing 18 dwelling units. As of 2018, the County placed 793 acres in agricultural easements, at an average cost of $2,859 per acre, well beyond the 2020 Climate Action Plan target.

The County is now expanding eligibility criteria to consider all agricultural properties in the unincorporated area. To learn more, check out the PACE program website.