Califonia Bountiful

It's a bountiful life: Preserving California's farmland

March/April 2021 California Bountiful magazine

Lifelong advocate of agriculture heads farm-protection program

Charlotte Mitchell walks through her family's walnut orchard with sons Justin, left, and J.C. Photo: © 2021 Steve German

Each year, California loses about 50,000 acres of farmland to development. Charlotte Mitchell, executive director of the California Farmland Trust, estimates more than 1 million acres have been lost since 1990, most of it prime soils that produce food and fiber for the U.S. and the world. The nonprofit trust has worked since 2004 to save farmland, preserving 75 family-owned farms so far. Mitchell is the former Sacramento County Farm Bureau executive director and before that worked for the California Farm Bureau. She lives in Elk Grove on a diversified farm with her husband, Ken, and their sons, Austin and J.C., sixth-generation farmers.

How did you become involved in agriculture? I was born and raised on a cattle and sheep operation in Sonoma County and grew up helping my parents in all aspects of the operation. I went to the local junior college and then to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to earn an ag business degree.

What does the California Farmland Trust do? Our mission is to help farmers protect the best farmland in the world. We do this by way of a legal protection called a conservation easement. When a farmer comes to us, they want to ensure that their land can remain in agriculture forever. Many want to honor the previous generations' hard work and see the land passed on to the next generation to continue its legacy. Putting the land in an agriculture conservation easement brings peace of mind to the landowner, knowing the land can never be turned into shopping malls or housing tracts.

So the easement preserves a farm or ranch as agricultural land forever? When an easement is placed on the land, it says the land can no longer be subdivided into urban uses or non-agricultural uses, in perpetuity. We compensate the farmer for the (development) right that they're giving up on their land. They still own the land; they still work the land and they can sell the land. It just needs to be in agriculture and farmland forever.

You're a strong advocate of California farmland. California has a unique, Mediterranean-type climate and prime soils that really are not found in very many other places in the world. California produces more than 400 commodities…. We have farmers that are embracing the latest science, new technology and efficiencies so we're able to grow more food for more people all year long. We need to strive to have a more organized urban development pattern so that housing and urban amenities can exist, while producing the abundance of food in California.

Do you have a personal investment in preserving farmland? My personal motivation is to ensure that my two boys, if they choose to, can have the opportunity to farm. Our oldest son, who currently works off the farm, wishes to take over the operation. I want to ensure that he has the ability to be in farming and has access to farmland.

She and husband Ken honor the family's agricultural legacy with a photo that includes his great-great-grandfather, a sheep shearer. Photo: © 2021 Steve German

Are certain regions of California losing farmland faster than others? The biggest region that's losing the most land is the San Joaquin Valley. For every eight people, we give up an acre of farmland to urbanization. Most of this is happening on prime soils near urban areas.

Where do you receive your support? We work with grant-funding partners and donors. We rely very much on our donor support as well as grant funding to be able to put the pieces together for this transaction to occur.

There's a constant tug between providing more housing and providing more food. What would you tell developers who want to build on farmland? We need to strive to have a more organized urban development pattern so that housing and urban amenities can exist, while continuing to produce more than 400 commodities in California. Our farmland is a finite resource, and once it is paved over, it never has returned to farmland. We can achieve a balance between good urban planning, protecting the natural working landscape and preserve our ability to have the freshest, abundant supply of food by working together to support in-fill development, oppose sprawl and to encourage farmland protection initiatives.

California Farmland Trust also teaches about agriculture in the classroom. We have a great partnership with Raley's, which has supported our Field Trips on the Farm program. Pre-COVID-19, we were engaging classrooms and bringing them out to the farm and to learn by getting their hands dirty. Post-COVID-19, we turned those field trips into a virtual activity. We worked with California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom to develop an activity that shows how much farmland is left in the world. The activity is called Orange You Glad We Have Farmland. The orange represents the world, and by cutting up the orange several times, all that's left is a very small, thin piece of the orange rind that represents the entire amount of farmland (3%) that we have in the world to grow food.

What are your outside interests? I spent many years as a 4-H leader. My hobby remains being here on the farm. I enjoy riding my horse and I enjoy cooking with some of California's finest produce.

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