Land Retirement

Text by Carolyn Lockhead from the SF Chronicle article: California Drought: Central Valley farmland on its last legs

“More than a decade ago, Jack Mitchell, now 74, sold 3,000 acres of his irrigated land to federal officials trying to find out whether imperiled farmland could be reclaimed by the native plants, birds, mammals and other wildlife that once thrived in the San Joaquin Valley. Mitchell’s farm was on the site of the old Tulare Lake, once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, covering 800 square miles and yielding 3-foot trout. It went dry in the early 20th century as farmers began diverting water.

 Mitchell had grown cotton and other row crops since his father bought the farm in 1946. But water was getting scarce and expensive, the drainage was terrible, and the government was offering a buyout. “We could see the writing on the wall,” Mitchell said.

The experimental plot, called Atwell Island, covers about 8,000 acres in Tulare County. For more than a decade there and at a smaller site to the north in Fresno County called Tranquillity, federal land agents and university scientists experimented with restoring native plants and animals. The program was authorized by the Central Valley Project Improvement Act of 1992, the brainchild of Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez.”

Back in March of 2014 I drove down to the tiny town of Aplaugh California just North of Bakersfield in the San Joaquin Valley to photograph farmer and rancher Jack Mitchell who had previously sold 3000 acres of his land to federal officials for restoration.  I also met Atwell Island Sanctuary site manager Jihadda Govan who showed me around the area that had been restored back into wetlands and while there we ran across students from Aplaugh High School that were checking on small plots they had planted on the Sanctuary grounds for a biology class project.

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