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Let’s have a talk with state Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross

There’s a clutch of wine bottles on one bookcase. A cuddly stuffed pear sits on another along with a woodblock of Abraham Lincoln.

On the credenza behind the desk of California Secretary of Agriculture Karen Ross is The Answer Book, a bound variant on the Magic Eight Ball. Pose a question; flip to a random page for an answer. What if the former chief of staff to US Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack swiveled around in her chair, to ask “Is a medlfy quarantine needed in Stockton?” and received as answer: “Adopt an adventurous attitude.”

Ross, a self-described “foodie” is bullish on California agriculture. As well she should be given the job, Gov. Jerry Brown named her to on January 12.

In her first nine months, she says she has focused on transparency, “demystifying the department’s programs” and reached out to California’s $37 billion agriculture community on everything from desired amendments to the federal Farm Bill to growing a new crop of farmers. She talks with Capitol Weekly.

CW: Recently, the Board of Agriculture, which you were a member of for a long time, held a hearing to find ways to encourage more people to become farmers. Whey do we need to encourage more people to become farmers?

KR: Well because of the median age of our farmers now. It’s an aging population here and across the country so we have declining numbers of people in farming. If we are not thinking and being forward looking at where will the next generation of farmers come from we may not have enough farmers for what the food needs are for the world population. I think the reason this has captured so much attention is that it’s actually something that’s very positive. It’s hopeful. It’s forward looking and there is so much new energy of young people who want to get into farming and they have not grown up on a farm.

KR: People my age – we’re not going to talk about the specifics of my age, OK – People my age, even if they didn’t grow up on a farm, they had an aunt, an uncle or their grandparents and we’re getting to be one or two generations away from those kind of connections to the land. And so there is this resurgence of interest. And that’s exciting. This really speaks to where farmers come from. Because farmers think about leaving something better for the next generation. Farm families spend a lot of their time, if they’re doing the business right, on succession planning and thinking that through. We have a situation where a lot of farmers have said to their kids I want you to go and do something else. That’s been kind of the sad message of farming.

CW: Why do they tell their kids that?

KR: Because it’s a hard way to make a living. It takes a lot of capital. There’s a lot of volatility. So we’ve gone through this era of getting as efficient as possible with the smallest number of people as possible and all of a sudden there may not be the next generation of that family coming back to the farm. And I think Secretary Vilsack, when he testified before the Senate Ag committee last year, he said if our farm policy is really working, shouldn’t we be growing new farmers at the same rate that we’re growing crops. And he challenged them that over the next five years we should say we’re going to have 100,000 new farmers. So now the question is what does it take to make it happen for those young people who may not be born into this or have the land but want to get into small scale farming or, urban agriculture? There are so many exciting opportunities. I’m very bullish about agriculture right now.

CW: As well you should be, Madame Secretary.

KR: No kidding. But it’s a really positive sector in our economy right now both what’s happening with exports as well as new opportunities like farmers markets and community supported agriculture. Mobile food trucks. Everything that’s reconnecting people back to their food, their health and their nutrition. Buying local. It’s good. Trust me on this, it’s all good.

CW: Are there incentives, say, that people need to get into farming? Or is just a desire to get into farming enough? For example, there’s a shortage of doctors and so if you agree to be a doctor in rural California the state says we’ll defray some of you costs.

KR: We haven’t gotten there with farmers.

CW: Because you don’t need to or because there isn’t a silver bullet?

KR: There is not a silver bullet and I don’t think we’ve thought it through collectively as a society let alone as the farming community just how we create this. The last farm bill had dedicated dollars for new and beginning farmers as well as socially disadvantaged farmers to make sure that we’re making some small-scale investment in incentives. Young people are very innovative. What they’re looking for are opportunities to work with a farmer, doing an apprenticeship, having a mentor program. How do you learn everything that a farmer just grows up knowing how to do? There are some programs for investment, IRAs that could be used as dollars to help a young farmer. Farm Services Agency has a lot of good programs that are really focused on how do we make sure young, new people without the capital, without five years farming experience and without a history of productivity can gain access to operating loans. How do they find land to be able to farm?

CW: What’s the department’s role in the local farm movement?

KR: We are very lucky in California because we can grow anything. We’ve got the climate. We’ve got the soils. So we can grow anything. We have farmers markets. We have almost 800 farmers markets. We’re spoiled. So those are opportunities where farmers are using that for a lot of their small-scale production, getting it there. The whole movement on local is in some ways overtaking organic. They are somewhat interconnected but they’re paying attention to food. And this new dialogue about food is really engaging a lot of different kinds of consumers but there’s understanding of nutrition and that we haven’t been paying enough attention to nutrition and what I eat could prevent chronic diseases so its creating a new focus, a new interest on food and that’s creating markets and that’s allowing young people, small scale farmers on the urban edge, there’s a number of movements Yolo started a couple years ago reminding the chefs of San Francisco we’re within the 100 miles of your food shed so you can source it all here. So it’s starting to make those connections with chefs, with the food service industry, farmers markets, school, farms-to-school. There’s a lot of new energy there that was there 10 years ago.

KR: Anytime you can shorten the distance between a farmer and an eater I think you’re doing a really good thing. Our system has gotten so efficient. One of the reasons we don’t have a lot of farmers in farming is we’ve created this very efficient quite reliable food system that’s gotten lots of food choices into the marketplace and we’ve done it under the radar screen and people weren’t thinking about where did it come from, who grew it, what are the farming practices. So now they’re awakening to that. Sometimes because of very high-profile spokespersons like Michael Pollen or Alice Waters or because of their kids behavior in school.

KR: The new emphasis now is local, regional food systems. Are we more self sufficient in food? Why do so many of our people in the Central Valley suffer from obesity, diabetes, food access issues. That shouldn’t be. Is the system serving everyone? Why do we hav
e food deserts? Really. In America. So people are looking at the whole food system and how do I make sure that everyone has access to healthy, California grown food.

CW: How does food safety, which is one of the department’s key functions, relate to the local food movement?

KR: Because of this robust interest in local regional food systems, artisan foods — whether its cheese or yogurt or bread — there still is a need to make sure we don’t sacrifice food safety. But what’s the appropriate balance of delivering those foods to the consumers and meeting local environmental health officers worries about ensuring we adequately protect everyone. When you put anything in a chain of custody with customers it changes the dynamic of what’s going on so we want to make sure that were helping to eliminate barriers to having really robust local regional food systems with artisan producers doing whatever they want to do but were not going to sacrifice food safety in doing that.

CW: On your website there’s Africanized bees, farmers markets, garbage cooking for swine feed – that sounds bad – hydrilla, livestock and poultry diseases. When you look at the department what’s the percentage that goes to enforcement? Part of your job is promotion of the state’s – how many billion is it now? – Ag industry.

KR: $37 and a half billion.

CW: But then another part of the job is enforcement.

KR: Actually, the biggest part of what our dollars go to is this infrastructure of protecting the state and natural resources from invasive species and animal diseases and ensuring food safety.

CW: So that’s…

KR: The core function of this department. And that’s where the general fund dollars have historically been. After taking the cuts we have this year, and the next round that were going to be taking, it forces you to really think through what is it that truly serves the public health. Let’s face it: A food safety incident hurts everybody in that particular commodity. So there’s brand equity. Everyone is involved in that. It’s the public health, which is the most sacred thing the government is set up to try to protect.

CW: I think I understand you about brand equity: It’s like protecting the entire industry so nobody is advantaged over somebody else?

KR: I’ll use peanut butter as an example since we don’t grow peanut butter in this state. A few years ago there was a food safety incident involving peanut butter. Given the way the world is connected, customers and potential customers in China knew about that within minutes of what had happened. People don’t distinguish between one brand of peanut butter or one country’s peanut butter. It puts a pall on anything that you’re doing. So there’s a huge reason for the industry to pay attention to this stuff. And to make sure that good agricultural practices are in place, regardless of the size of your farm, and that we have systems in place to try to prevent food safety incidents as much as possible recognizing we farm in the dirt, in the open air and with Mother Nature.

CW: The industry seems willing to charge themselves to do this.

KR: Yes, because they understand their stake in this. I call that brand equity because everyone has a stake in this game. So how do we all work together – private sector, public sector – how do we work together to put the best protective system in place, knowing there’s no such thing as zero risk.

CW: The California Manufacturers Association says that California has the cleanest manufacturing in the world. Where do our farming practices rank? Somewhere north of Sri Lanka, no doubt.

KR: My brother is a farmer in Nebraska and he says ‘I know whatever you’re doing in California is eventually going to get here but just keep it there as long as possible.’ Only in this state do we have 100 percent pesticide use reporting. Only in this state do we have a greenhouse gas reduction that will not impact farmers directly but it’s part of what we as a state are going to do. Only in this state have we spent more than $50 million in cost sharing to replace diesel engines to help clean up the air. We do things here that they don’t do in other states because we have an environmental ethic. We’re not only the most productive Ag state but the most urbanized population state. So it presents unique challenges but it’s also a positioning thing for us. We’re the most innovative because of those challenges. I think that has helped to build the brand name of California. We have the most organic farms. The most people committed to bio-dynamic farming.

CW: So what is it the department can’t do?

KR: What can’t we do?

CW: Yeah. What does agriculture have to do for itself that you can’t help facilitate?

KR: We’re not doing marketing. There are no general fund dollars for marketing. Various growers assess themselves. I have oversight over that but that’s them deciding that course. It’s not the government official deciding that course.

CW: What does the governor tell you he wants you to do here?

KR: Well since I’ve gotten here his focus has been on getting the fiscal house in order. All the other things we might like to do will not be possible unless we can focus on that. He’s very engaged in looking at all of this and thinking it through. Is this needed?  Is there a better way of doing it? Who’s the beneficiary? Who gets hurt? Do we have existing authority? He gets that California is strategically advantaged for the kinds of markets where the growth is. When he was governor the first time he signed the farmers’ market law. Next year I hope to do some bigger picture initiatives. I think we’re really at the right time for a real strategy in this state: Who pays attention to rural California?

CW: John Laird says his agency is the ambassador to rural California.

KR: Tell John I’m the ambassador to rural California.

CW: Fairs and expositions?

KR: For which I have no general fund dollars anymore.

CW: What’s their future?

KR: The governor has asked for recommendations on the future of fairs. A number of the fairs are district Ag associations so they are governed by the state, their employees are state employees, their boards are appointed by the governor and they’re run on state property. Many of these fairgrounds are the last open space in some highly urban areas, Orange County being an example. Many of them are integrated into emergency response plans, homeland security, staging for fire, training by police. What I’m looking at for the future is fulfilling this need for agricultural education and connecting consumers to their food source. There are opportunities for nutrition education, urban farming because its there, FFA, 4-Hers and others who want to get into farming. We’re really trying to repurpose fairgrounds to make sure they’re relevant in the 21st Century. But what really matters most is community relevance. And I think fairs will survive if they’ve done a good job of staying connected to their community and have a strong professional manager. And they have a very engaged board that’s really listened to their community and are doing something relevant to that community. That way they’re going keep community support.

CW:  In the future there isn’t going to be state subsidies.

KR: There won’t be general fund support. What’s challenging is the small fairs in sparsely populated are
as simply don’t have a population base to draw on. Some of them are already in talks about sharing a manger to run several. Focus on a region and make that property still work and cut down on overhead. I’m very optimistic that by and far most of the fairs are in good shape. They definitely will be around. I have to have recommendations to the governor before the end of this year. I think its still valuable state property and don’t see any reason to sell them unless a community wants to. It’s really some of the governance pieces and how that goes forward, giving fairs more autonomy to be more entrepreneurial.

CW: One more question. What is the difference between an Oriental and a Mediterranean fruit fly?

KR: They’re both bad.

CW: That’s a similarity. There’s a quarantine of one of them in San Joaquin…

KR: Stockton. We hardly ever get fruit fly infestations in there but that’s just a part of trade and the port and changing diets. I show know the difference but I’m sure there’s some obscure Latin thing.

CW: I was mostly joking

KR: Unfortunately, bugs have become my life. That’s what I spend all my time on. You can almost bet at 4 o’clock on a Friday there’s going to be a find of some new bug in this state. It defines my life. Can you imagine that? And I’m an English major.

CW: Can there ever really be a winning strategy with bugs? Someone either thinks you’re going too far or not far enough. Lawsuits are filed.

KR: That’s truly the challenge. We have the most coastline. We have the most ports of entry. We have the most high-risk international travelers coming in. We have more cargo, more travel, more tourists, more commerce. So if we can protect California from that than we can protect the rest of the nation. There’s a lot at stake. We need to work with the federal government to do more offshore to keep down the bug populations there. We need to have more public understanding it’s really not OK to put these three things in your suitcase and not declare them because it carries pests. And we need more stakeholder involvement. My commitment since I’ve come here is transparency, to demystify the programs of CDFA as well as stakeholder inclusiveness. We have to build coalitions and we have to engage with urban California and not just talk to one part of our population about what we do here.

CW: In the decision-making process you obviously don’t start with the most invasive process. It’s more like what’s the least invasive thing we can do to stop this right here.

KR: Right. We engage with the community. Talk about all the things and why some are going to work better than others so we can be the least invasive possible. We look for the nexus of least invasive and most effective but some times for the bigger picture – protecting trade – and moving food from here to another state I listen to a community’s concerns and factor that in but, ultimately, I have to make a decision I can defend to the governor’s office that protects public health and keeps trade moving. I suppose I have to stop thinking everyone is going to like me.

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