An early phase of a state project to link San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego by high-speed rail has come under fire from California Farm Bureau Federation members who say it will take farmland out of production.

Bureaus in Madera and Merced counties have joined other groups and local officials in a lawsuit filed in Sacramento against the California High-Speed Rail Authority, challenging an environmental review of the 75-mile Merced to Fresno stretch.

The state Senate gave final approval to the multibillion-dollar project — the nation’s first dedicated high-speed rail line — by a 21-16 vote in July.

“Madera County is ground zero,” said Anja Raudabaugh, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau. “They’re moving forward with property acquisition, but formal offers can’t be made until there’s environmental clearance and lawsuits are resolved. If they don’t start by January, it won’t get done on time without blowing every budget known to man.”

“We will not be willing sellers on this alignment,” she said. “Prime farmland in California has tripled in value from $8,000 an acre in 2005 to a minimum of $22,000 now. The rail authority is not responsive to that. Farmers will fight tooth and nail for a fair price, and preferably not sell.”

Nearly half her membership of 1,110 growers fear going out of business as a result of the project, Raudabaugh said, and about 70 dairies are at risk.

“Because there can’t be crossings, it will close access to several feed yards and packing operations, separate pomegranates from their juicing facilities and almonds from their hulling facilities,” she said.

Other issues arise from the route-cutting across parcel lines.

“If you separate 30 acres out of 100, often the 30 becomes unfarmable,” Raudabaugh said. “That can be the difference between making a profit or not.”

If farmland is lost, proceeds from the state’s Williamson Act — which provides for a lower property tax rate on agricultural land — will also be at stake. “We’ll lose 25% at minimum,” Raudabaugh said.

Initial path more urban

Opposition to high-speed rail from agriculture is fairly recent. Farm bureaus, for example, had supported the project along transportation corridors like Highway 99, as its bond measure called for. Crops like pomegranates, walnuts, almonds and pistachios are typically planted several miles away.

“It’s high-value stuff that our guys planted with no expectation a freeway would encroach on them,” Raudabaugh said.

“The High-Speed Rail Authority has seen farmland as the path of least resistance,” California Farm Bureau president Paul Wenger said in a news release. “But farmers and ranchers are resisting.”

“They wanted to avoid the cost of elevating the rail in towns, and the 99 route had a lot of wetlands,” said Raudabaugh, who’s established a legal fund for her efforts. “They’d rather challenge the farmers than the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the Army Corps of Engineers.”

Western Growers has taken no formal position on high-speed rail, but the general drift of the Irvine, Calif.-based trade association is clear.

“We’re of the opinion that it is an ill-advised project,” said Wendy Fink-Weber, director of communications at Western Growers. “We’re working with the Authority to address serious concerns about how to mitigate the impact on farmland.”

Elsewhere, the Kings County Farm Bureau and county officials there have voiced concerns about the farmland effects of the proposed Fresno to Bakersfield route.

The Rail Authority’s environmental impact report, business plan and other project information is online.