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'The best thing' for Madera farmland

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webmaster | 09/25/02

The Madera 8 was a famous band of renegade farm owners who fought the forces of development and won, forever protecting their rich agricultural lands from the ravages of urban encroachment.

That's the way the history books will probably write it, predicted Tom Petrucci.

Petrucci, along with seven other Madera families, celebrated the creation of their 440-acre "farmland security perimeter" with a press conference Wednesday at Quady Winery.

"This is probably the best thing that has happened to Madera," Madera 8 member Ron Pistoresi whispered as representatives from federal and state land conservation agencies took turns at the podium congratulating the group.

The perimeter runs along Road 24 and Howard Road and is the only contiguous block ever sold in the western United States by a group.

The deal earned the Madera 8 $3.3 million – the difference between the land's farming value and what developers would pay.

But it did something far more important, say its proponents. It will act as a buffer to protect not only their own land but an additional 2,100 acres from future development.

"I love this land," said area landowner and Oregon resident Dick Ford.

He looked out across the hot alluvial plain where grapevines withered under a blazing sun.

"It would have been a real shame to see it all go to development. We've saved it for future generations," he said.

But the deal almost never happened, according to American Farmland President Matt Grossi.

"This was last minute," Grossi said. "Ideally, you like to get ahead of the curve and conserve land that's further from a city, so this was a miracle."

Indeed, the land sits on the western edge of the rapidly growing City of Madera where sewer lines had already been put in and the land was zoned for housing and apartments.

Even Madera 8 leader Denis Prosperi, a grape farmer and land owner, thought that his only alternative to farming was to sell and develop his 40 acres.

"I thought that all I could do was to sell it to developers," he said. "I had plans to sell it and develop it until I heard about Farmland Trust."

When he tried have the city annex the land, his neighbors – family friends going back to the early 1900s – openly revolted and blocked the city's plans.

"We didn't want him to do it and we told him so," said Gino Petrucci, looking to his mother, Lena, for agreement.

"The families who farmed this land go back for generations and they would have been forced to sell it all and give up a way of life they love," she said.

Talked back from his commercial ledge, Prosperi later spearheaded the effort that got federal, state and local contributions enough to buy the easements.

He encouraged the collective efforts of Tom, Lena and Gino Petrucci, Dick and Bob Ford, Richard Dolio, Enzo Petrucci, Ron Pistoresi, Dorothy Campbell and John VanHoogmoed – the group that from now through eternity will be known as the Madera 8.

Prosperi's wife said the money will help them ride out the tough grape pricing season.

And 92-year-old Marina Dolio, who was born on her chunk of land in 1909, will live out her days there. And 80-year-old twins Bob and Dick Ford say that they'll pass it on to their grandchildren.

No matter who gets the land, it can never be used for anything but agriculture. And that's just fine with the Madera 8.

"Even though we're absentee owners, we still care deeply about this land," Bob said.

Greg Kirkpatrick of the Farmland Trust said that he is now negotiating with six other Madera landowners to place about 200 more acres in easements that would act as a buffer to protect 1,800 acres from development.

Madera's land value, said State Conservationist Chuck Bell, is in its premium-grade soil.

Soil quality has been the number one qualifying factor in the acquisition of 120,000 acres of farmland now in easement across California and the half-million that comes into conservation each decade, he said.


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