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Prime farmland in Ontario, Calif., is being overtaken by warehouses


There's a land rush going on in the part of California, east of Los Angeles, known as the Inland Empire. And it's fueled by online shopping. The logistics industry is changing what was once an agricultural landscape into an industrial one. Gloria Hillard reports.

GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: At the end of a small dirt road, visitors to Randy Bekendam's farm are greeted by two cows, the color of butterscotch. The 69-year-old has been leasing and farming this land for more than 15 years. His jeans and cowboy hat are well-worn.

RANDY BEKENDAM: So the chickens are in the orchard to keep the weeds down. They're also fertilizing the orchard. So it's a beautiful synergy.

HILLARD: Residents of the city of Ontario come here to buy organic fruits and vegetables. School teachers and parents bring kids here to see the animals and how things grow, like the long, even rows of broccoli and beets.

BEKENDAM: Right now, we're transitioning from cool weather crops into some warmer weather crops.

HILLARD: And, Bekendam says, transitioning away from what once was agriculture for as far as the eye can see to a different picture. To show me, we get into his truck and drive a few minutes away.

BEKENDAM: Just a line of warehouse. I mean, it continues. No view. There's no vista. There's nothing. And all of it's prime farmland.

HILLARD: A line of 18 wheelers Dosey Doe at every four-way stop.

SUSAN PHILLIPS: I don't think anybody realizes what the cumulative impact is going to be.

HILLARD: Susan Phillips is the director of the environmental conservancy at nearby Pitzer College.

PHILLIPS: It just worsens climate. It worsens pollution. It makes things hotter. There's so many detrimental effects to it that it is a tremendous worry that we've invested so heavily in that infrastructure.

JASON KROTTS: Well, I think there's a lot we bring.

HILLARD: Jason Krotts is the managing principal of Real Estate Development Associates. His latest venture is a 150-acre project called the South Ontario Logistics Center.

KROTTS: Between our three project phases, our projects, once stabilized and fully built out, will create almost 34,000 jobs.

HILLARD: The land, a former dairy with knee-high grass and abandoned barns, became the focus of community backlash after the city modified zoning, paving the way for Krotts' project.

KROTTS: We're constantly monitoring the political climate of all of our cities that we have projects in.

HILLARD: City planners say the decision to move away from agriculture in that area of Ontario was made nearly 25 years ago. Scott Murphy is the city's executive director of community development.

SCOTT MURPHY: The desire was to see this area transition from agricultural use to other uses.

HILLARD: But to some residents, those other uses are heading in the wrong direction.

REGINA SMITH: It's like one warehouse after the next, after the next.

HILLARD: Regina Smith (ph) grew up here.

SMITH: I think we're all guilty of utilizing, you know? Like, that huge Amazon warehouse that went up, I use Amazon every day, you know? So we're all guilty of it. But it is disappointing because you're going to see all this disappear.

BEKENDAM: So it's a fight that has to be fought.

HILLARD: Farmer Randy Bekendam, along with the group Ontario for Agriculture, is trying to block the new logistics center with a referendum, which they hope to place on this fall's ballot.

BEKENDAM: Let's pause. And for certain, don't pave prime farmland. And let's rethink what we really need for the future.

HILLARD: Bekendam's future is uncertain. The owner of the land he farms recently sold it to a developer. Bekendam has three years remaining on his lease. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard in Ontario, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.