CDFA on the chopping block?

Given California’s budget problems, a move is afoot to severly reduce or eliminate the California Department of Food and Agriculture. With a rapidly shifting agricultural economy, threats from many invasive pests, a spat of food safety issues, and no reliable climate models for the future, is this the right time for this? And hey… if I’m the guy speaking in favor of retaining a bureaucracy, you know it has got to be serious.

I’ve been meaning to formulate a piece on this, but my friend Rose Hayden-Smith beat me to it. I’ll see if she really does read this blog, by linking to her well-thought-out piece from Civil Eats below:

On Invasive Species…

The following op-ed appeared in Sunday’s Ventura County Star under my byline, but I should point out that I was merely one of several people who worked on the language, and the positions stated are those of the Ag Futures Alliance as a whole.


The Ventura County Ag Futures Alliance has watched in dismay the recent conflict over the efforts to control the gypsy-moth outbreak in Meiners Oaks. The gypsy moth is an invasive species that was introduced into the area by human action. The damage the moth can cause is well-documented and, if unchecked, could result in permanent damage to many California native plants, particularly the oaks for which Ojai is famous. We believe the control approach taken by our county agricultural commissioner and the California Department of Food and Agriculture to be a prudent and low-risk response. Our core concern about this incident is what it says about our community and its ability to share responsibility for stewardship of the natural resources we all depend on. In our 2005 report, “A Community of Good Stewards,” we argued for the mutual responsibility the public and farmers have for preserving agriculture and the environment. We live in an interdependent world. What happens in your backyard impacts mine. In order for us all to enjoy the benefits of a healthy environment, we all must be willing to act decisively as good stewards of the land. At times, this may mean accepting the necessity for community action to deal with a pest that endangers us all. In the case of the gypsy moth, this means a measured application of a naturally occurring compound that is toxic only to a narrow range of target species. Do we know everything there is known about the risks of this material or any chemical in general use? No. Which is why we have to rely on the predominance of evidence and the principle of minimum effective use — which means simply, using the least toxic option in the lowest possible dose at the earliest possible moment to deal with the invasive pest. Looking forward, many scientists believe that climate change and increasing movement of goods and people will mean more outbreaks of invasive species. Many such species are waiting on our doorstep, including false coddling moth, citrus psyllid and light brown apple moth. We strongly recommend improving our capacity to prevent the spread of these pests and our ability to respond quickly when infestations are found. We also recognize that in situations involving highly technical information and highly charged emotions, clear and consistent communication is vital. We expect that, in due time, a sober assessment of the recent experience in Meiners Oaks will yield valuable lessons on all sides for the future. As an organization dedicated to preserving agriculture and the environment in Ventura County, we believe it is important to promptly respond to new pests that arrive unwelcome in our community. Our ecological foundation is fragile and these pests have the potential to harm both native species and the capacity of local agriculture to feed us. This is a problem we all share. As good stewards, we have an obligation to work hard to maintain the integrity of our native environment and avoid potential damage from invasive pests that human actions directly and indirectly introduce. The Ventura County Ag Futures Alliance is a collaboration of farmers, environmentalists, farmworker advocates and civic leaders working to sustain agriculture in Ventura County through consensus building and community action. For more information, visit

Final: CDFA Listening Session

Mr. Secretary, thank you for coming to Oxnard this afternoon.


I am proud to be a 5th generation farmer in Ventura County. We grow avocados and citrus, but our family operation dates back to when dry-farmed lima beans were a staple of Ventura’s economy. We have seen many changes and many crops, but we have continued to evolve. To my mind, this is the essence of sustainable agriculture.


Regulatory Burden

Much will be said today about the need for supporting small farms. In no area is a small farm at a greater disadvantage to larger competitors than in regulatory compliance. When a single set of shoulders must bear the weight, the burden gets heavy. If it is the goal of our policies not to have small farmers choose to lay that burden down, we must examine the load. As these listening sessions give way to policy formulation, let us consider chipping away at the layers of policy that exist already. Some are problematic already, and others may become contrary to the new policies adopted to lead to our 2030 vision. I hope we will seek good policy, rather than simply more policy.


Agricultural policy has tended to favor large producers and a small range of crops for global distribution. You may hear advocates tell you that the proper role for policy is to favor the opposite end of the spectrum: very small, highly diversified farms serving local markets. I ask you to recognize that replacing one extreme with the other has seldom worked in politics, economics or any other field of human activity.


Let’s apply the concept of biodiversity to the economics of farming. Just as we now recognize that a range of species must inhabit a given habitat for a healthy environment, a variety of farms make for a healthy farm economy. With Ventura County’s diversity of crops, there is not a day in the year that something isn’t being harvested and sent to market. Our large operations are essential to maintain a healthy population of equipment dealers and service providers. Mid-size family farmers often provide much of the leadership in local co-ops and associations. Smaller farms help sustain the agricultural service economy, and often pioneer specialty crops while feeding local markets. There is room for them all. We need them all. Our vision should embrace them all.


Local Food Systems

Now to the topic of local and regional food. There is currently a great deal enthusiasm for this approach, and I happily support efforts to greatly strengthen this aspect of our food system. But as we look to create policy, we must ask: “How local should we be?”


To be sure, we could do a great deal more. Only 5 to 10 percent of food going to local consumption could yield a great reduction in the amount of energy used for transportation and a boost for local economies. What is the right amount of local food? Is it 30%? 80%?  I don’t have that answer for you, other than to suggest that there is a point beyond which we are not increasing diversity of opportunities for growers and consumers, but restricting them. The antidote to extreme globalization is not extreme localization.


To look at the broader view for a moment: There is a nutritional crisis all over our country, and California agriculture has the ability to deliver nutritional produce throughout the year. It is appropriate, both ethically and economically, that we do so. Changes in policy should recognize that agriculture is both a source of economic strength for California, and a resource for our nation.


Immigration Reform

This state was built with the labor of those seeking a better life through hard work. And for all of our faults and sins along the way, our state and our country have been the greatest generators of wealth, freedom and human happiness this world has ever seen. Today the energy to continue this growth comes not from the East, but from the South. California must lead the way to practical, workable immigration reform. The people who travel here seek work and economic opportunity, and that is what we have to offer. A well managed border is in the national interest of both the United States and Mexico. California stands to gain if we enact meaningful reform, but no state stands to suffer more if we fail.


Invasive Pests

While we need a border that can accommodate a two-way flow of goods and labor, we cannot accommodate the introduction of foreign pests. Phytosanitary controls at the border must be increased. Without these measures, there will be no alternative to costly control measures taken after the fact. As we see currently with the Light Brown Apple Moth, such measures are costly both to government and growers, and will often anger certain segments of our community. Tight controls at the border are not only good policy, they are also a good investment.



I would like to close with a thought on our purpose here today. I often hear it said that we must have a common vision of the future, and that creativity and innovation will be necessary for success.


But if innovation and creativity are the solution to the problems of our food system, then is a common vision a meaningful goal? Has genuine innovation ever emerged from within a broadly held common vision? Or has it been the fringe view (the Uncommon Vision) that has been the origin of innovation? History is filled with those creative souls who have found new ways to accomplish what was thought to be impossible. Do we innovate here today? No, we don’t, but there is a role for us to play.


A common vision transformed into policy places limitations on the possible. Our role here today is not to define how the food system of 2030 will look. Today we begin to define the possibilities, and clearly we must leave them open. We cannot expect to find the results we seek by limiting our options. We must allow room for people to experiment, to make mistakes, and even fail and we will find the answers. If we are not prepared to let innovation be our guide, then we will fail.


I am reminded that here in Ventura County, where we are lucky to have people working on innovative farm-to-school programs, institutional and policy obstacles prevent them from fully realizing the potential of these programs. Will our new policies set them free? I hope so. In our pursuit of “common vision”, let us not preclude the Uncommon Visions that will be the catalysts for true success.


 I am pleased that CDFA is recognizing these issues, and again, Mr. Secretary, I wish to thank you for your time.