An interview with CDFA secretary Karen Ross on organic agriculture – from the Organic Produce Network

OPN (the Organic Produce Network) had the chance to ask the Secretary of the California Department of Food Agriculture, Karen Ross what CDFA is doing to assist California organic growers and farmers and the growth of organic agriculture throughout the state.

OPN Connect: From your perspective as a California Secretary of Agriculture what are some of the most pressing issues facing producers in California?

Karen Ross: The three that come up over and over are water availability, lack of labor and NAFTA.  A large part of agriculture trade moves across both NAFTA borders. Mexico is the top destination for California dairy products and Canada is a top market for fruits, nuts, vegetables and wine.

OPN Connect: What initiatives does CDFA have in place to help mitigate the issues producers are experiencing?

Karen Ross: We try to address the impacts with our specialty crop block grant program, in particular where people have applied for grants in the areas of innovation, ag education and training for beginning farmers. Most of the support comes from our ability to keep that program funded at the levels it has been under previous Farm Bills.

We serve as an advocate to the research community –especially on the need for automation and for vocational education to ensure the workforce skills associated with automation.

On the water side, the cap-and- trade auction funds (known as the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund) has made available on-farm water use efficiency programs.  Approximately $67 million has been allocated for the Statewide Water Efficiency Enhancement Program (SWEEP) and it’s been oversubscribed every year by about 300%.  It’s funded the investment of on-farm precision irrigation technologies – covering more than 100,000 acres with an annual reduction of 71 thousand metric tons of Green House Gas emissions,  and 86,000 acre feet of water savings.

OPN Connect: How does CDFA support organic farming in the state?

Karen Ross: We recognize organic as a fast-growing segment of agriculture. We are the first state to have a State Organic Program (SOP) and have worked closely with the organic community to streamline and modernize the program. We especially value the California Organic Products Advisory Committee (COPAC), which helps identify priorities and make sure we allocate the resources to the activities most valued by the organic sector.

We want everyone to understand the importance of organic in the overall ag picture. We try to be very responsive to the timeliest issues and are very committed to preserving the integrity of California Certified Organic.   

OPN Connect: The average age of the American farmer is 64+. What is CDFA doing to encourage our youth to enter agriculture?

Karen Ross: Wherever I go I try to include a meeting with students, from preschool to college-age, to be a champion for how exciting it can be to pursue a career in agriculture.

One of the priorities of the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program has been education and outreach for beginning farmers and ag literacy. We want to inform students who don’t have farming experience what it means to plant a seed, harvest it and prepare it as food — ag literacy, farming and nutrition in one package!

OPN Connect: The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently announced that climate change impacts may cost the U.S. agriculture sector up to $9.2 billion by 2039. What initiatives does CDFA have to help alleviate this issue?How can organic can play a part in mitigating this risk?

Karen Ross: Between 2011 and 2012 I convened a specialty crop consortium on climate change, primarily made up of farmers and ranchers, to better understand how the farming community was considering climate change and priorities for adaptation and mitigation.

That roadmap was released in 2012 and circulated broadly to make sure researchers and our sister agencies were aware of its priorities.

Part of California’s climate change program includes the ag water efficiency program (discussed earlier) which asks the applicant to calculate estimated Greenhouse Gas emission reductions.   That is possible because of the development of an on-line calculator tool developed by USDA – “Comet Planner.”

Our Healthy Soils Program (HSP) features grants for farmers who practice no till, minimal till, applications of compost and use of cover crops to build organic matter in our soils.  We consult with CAL-Recycle to divert 75 percent of organic waste that would otherwise go to landfills and could become compost.

The organic community’s focus on soil health has a huge role to play in all this. Those practices are easily transferable to all farming systems.

OPN Connect: A recent study conducted by the California Farm Bureau Federation indicated that in the past year over 50 percent of California  farmers suffered acute labor shortages. What solutions do we need to help farmers get their labor needs met?

Karen Ross: We have to make everybody believe that farming is cool and there are many career opportunities in agriculture.  If we can’t do that to attract more people then increased automation is necessary and that requires additional workforce training for different types of skills.

The only other option available is to expand the use of the existing H2A program for seasonal agricultural guest workers.  California has not traditionally been a big user of the program because it is not a great fit for specialty crops.

Immigration reform would certainly be helpful!

OPN Connect: You will be speaking at the “We are Organic: CCOF Foundation Dinner” before the Organic Grower Summit. What message do you hope to convey that will help organic producers?

Karen Ross: I am an optimistic person and I want share my enthusiasm about the future of California ag and the role organic agriculture has in our economy and our quality of life.

The leadership role Governor Brown is playing on climate change is important. California agriculture has much to lose if we don’t take this on aggressively.  It is important for food security, our rich biodiversity, and the beautiful landscapes we are blessed with in California. We must all be engaged on this journey together.

I really appreciate the work of CCOF and the leadership role of their Foundation.  The work they have done to identify the research needs of farmers and ranchers is important. They are making research a high priority in Farm Bill requests. I really commend CCOF and the entire organic community for those efforts.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Cowboy rides to the rescue during Ventura County fires – from the San Francisco Chronicle


Horses near the fire line last week in Ventura County.

By Lizzie Johnson

When the mandatory evacuation orders came and the fire rigs blared into their neighborhoods, they stayed.

They stayed when the flames licked along fence lines, and they stayed when the sparks from the wildfires singed the bottom of their hair. They stayed until Brian Laughlin, 43, saved them.

That’s how about 25 horses across Ventura County survived the firestorms blazing across multiple fronts this week: Herded into the back of Laughlin’s trailer, three at a time, and driven to pastures far away.

It’s not their fault they stayed, confined to barns or chained in pastures, Laughlin said Thursday. He’s not sure why they were abandoned — maybe there wasn’t time for their owners to load them into the trailer or cut their lines loose — but this cowboy is willing to do it for them. He has five horses of his own, and the thought of losing them almost brings him to tears.

“What kind of person would I be if I didn’t save them?” said Laughlin, who lives in Simi Valley.

He’s one of the best-known horse rescuers in the county. His phone number is posted Facebook pages and on the Southern California Equine Evacuation group’s website. His iPhone is constantly ringing. When he gets an address, he goes. The firefighters are usually happy to see him. The police — not so much.

“How come I always see this pick-up truck places where it isn’t supposed to be?” a California Highway patrolman asked him at one stop. Laughlin shrugged. He usually doesn’t brake at the barricaded roads to talk to law enforcement. He just rolls on through.

Laughlin can placate even the most skittish of horses, coaxing them into his trailer with sugar cubes or a rope wrapped like a wedgie around their backside. He grew up riding horses in a dusty Central Valley town called Alpaugh. Now he runs a business training them on his ranch — when he’s not running into flames to rescue other people’s livestock all over the state.

Sometimes he’s too late, or just not in the right place at the right time — like in Sylmar on Tuesday, where about 30 horses were burned to death in their stalls as flames roared over them.

On Wednesday, Laughlin got stuck in traffic with a trailer of horses on his way to Burbank. That took a couple of hours, he said. “Not much sleep these days,” he added.

When there is a lull in a fire, he crashes on a mattress in the back of the trailer. He hides his matted hair with a trucking supply company baseball cap. Sometimes, if it’s convenient, he spends the night in Woodland Hills with his girlfriend.

It’s not uncommon for the horses’ owners to offer him their spare bedroom, their washing machine — he smells like horses, too — or a hot meal. If not, he eats power bars and peanut butter pretzels and wears the same singed blue flannel shirt and blue jeans.

On Thursday, he waited outside a small ranch in Ojai. The fire was still burning up in the hillsides, back where many horse corrals were. A small teddy bear — he calls it his safety bear — was tucked on his dashboard. It’s really there to stop a broken part of his dashboard from jangling, or so he says.

The sky was choked with smoke, and Laughlin checked his phone. While the bucolic city was largely spared that day by the Thomas Fire, he was expecting rescues to happen in Carpenteria as the Santa Ana winds pushed flames north.

“When horses are in danger, it’s up to me to help,” he said. “People know who I am.”

His phone rang. Another rescue. He climbed in the truck and drove away, dust barreling behind him.

Link to article

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A farmer’s perspective from the fire zone – from the UC Food Observer

A view of the Thomas Fire this week from the author’s farm in Ventura County

By Chris Sayer


This week is California Soils Week

I have been chewing on an appropriate commentary, but hadn’t found quite the right angle on it. What was there I could say that was new?

And then the fire came.

A dear friend was one of the first evacuees; fleeing her home with trailered horses before the news even broke to the world. The last three days have been a literal whirlwind of bad news. I haven’t been able to keep track of all the friends and acquaintances who have suffered from this fire. Homes, farms and businesses are gone.

And we have several more days of Santa Ana winds to go.

I’ve been fortunate. Though evacuated from one ranch, I’m safe at the other. I’ve lost nothing but sleep. Writing was something I haven’t had time for. Besides, how could I worry about the soil at a time like this?

Yet it occurs to me that this will be a disaster of the soils as well. As I write this, nearly one hundred thousand acres of my home county have been scorched. On barren hillsides and rangeland, the soil lies wounded and vulnerable.

A friend is putting together a GoFundMe to obtain seed to help restore grazing land and secure slopes. Many details to be worked out. And we’ll need some rain. But soil is built upon the leaves and roots of plants, and we know how to make that happen.

We can help the soil help us to recover.

That seems like exactly what I should write about for California Soils Week.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

California Soils Week: GrowGood community garden tour

California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (left) and CDFA Secretary Karen Ross (right) learn about GrowGood from its Executive Director Mary MacVean.

CDFA Secretary Karen Ross joined Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, Strategic Growth Council Executive Director Randall Winston and other guests in the Southern California city of Bell today to tour an innovative community garden, GrowGood, that works to provide food security to the homeless and needy as well as training and jobs. The group learned that the site has produced nearly 10,000 pounds of food this year.

The visit is part of California Soils Week (December 4 to December 7). The week’s theme is “Healthy Soils, Healthy Lives,” in recognition of the fact that California’s soils help feed the world, conserve water, improve air quality, fight climate change, and provide opportunity.

CDFA Secretary Karen Ross (right) with Strategic Growth Council Executive Director Randall Winston and GrowGood Farms Executive Director Mary MacVean.

Posted in Agricultural Education, Food Access, Healthy soils | Leave a comment

CDFA’s Office of Farm to Fork Looks Ahead to Fertile Future

As 2018 draws near, CDFA’s Office of Farm to Fork can look back on all that happened in 2017 and know that there will be an even-stronger commitment to improving all Californians’ access to California-grown foods by working to reduce food insecurity and advancing farm-to-school relationships. We are pleased to share the details of this work through the release of the 2016 – 2017 Annual Report, a redesigned website, and a new strategic plan.

In 2017 the Office assumed leadership of the California Farm to School Network, an organization dedicated to increasing student access to food grown within our state and educating them about the production of that food. The network connects 4,300 stakeholders, including farmers and school districts, across the state with the collective goal of improving the quality of student meals and inspiring lifelong healthy eating habits.

The Office of Farm to Fork is also operating the California Nutrition Incentive Program (CNIP), which encourages the purchase and consumption of healthy, California-grown fresh fruits, vegetables, and nuts by nutrition benefit clients at certified farmers’ markets. The program is a win-win for farmers and low-income Californians. Since launching this past summer, CNIP has provided over $500,000 in fresh fruit and vegetables to low-income shoppers. More details can be found here.

Throughout 2017 the Office also continued its commitment to provide stakeholders and the public with reports, program profiles, and best practices farm-to -school an food access. Materials are available on the newly redesigned and are arranged by topic.

There is still a long road ahead, but the Office of Farm to Fork is pleased with the roadmap that has been created to this point and will be working to leverage all available resources for the benefit of Californians well into the future.

Posted in Agricultural Education, Food Access | 1 Comment

Compost drop for California Soils Week

It’s Compost Drop Day at the California State Capitol! Elena Yates of CalRecycle hands a packet of compost and an informational poster to a staff member in the office of Assemblymember Sharon Quirk-Silva (D -Fullerton). The outreach is of part of the first-ever California Soils Week, which continues through Thursday with a theme of “Healthy Soils, Healthy Lives.”

CDFA’s Jaydeep Singh meets with a staff member in the office of Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella).

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

CDFA Honors Craig McNamara’s tenure and leadership on the California State Board of Food and Agriculture

CDFA Secretary Karen Ross with State Board President Craig McNamara at this morning’s session.

After more than 16 years on the California State Board of Food and Agriculture, with the last 7 years as Board President, Craig McNamara is stepping down from his position on the Board to participate as a 2018 Fellow in the Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute program.  The fellowship program offers an extraordinary opportunity for individuals to advance social impact at the local, national and global levels.

“Craig has been a visionary leader for the State Board and has been an unwavering advocate for California’s farmers and ranchers to both me and the Governor,” said CDFA Secretary Karen Ross. “I’m happy for Craig in his new pursuit, but will deeply miss his counsel and thoughtfulness on the issues impacting the agricultural community.”

Under Craig’s leadership the Board further advanced the California Ag Vision, helped to double farm contributions to food banks, addressed agricultural immigration issues, and was a critical voice for agriculture in a variety of water discussions related to drought and sustainable groundwater management.

As Craig departs the State Board he leaves behind a legacy of dedication to California’s farmers and ranchers and a reinvigorated Board mission of engagement and representation of the diversity of California’s agricultural sector to the governor and CDFA secretary.

The California State Board of Food and Agriculture advises the governor and the CDFA secretary on agricultural issues and consumer needs. The state board conducts forums that bring together local, state and federal government officials, agricultural representatives and citizens to discuss current issues of concern to California agriculture.

Posted in AG Vision, State Board of Food and Agriculture | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Climate Smart Agriculture – Chile trip concludes

We ended our Climate Smart Agriculture delegation visit last week by visiting the La Serena region of Chile. This region, North of Santiago, is a cool season agricultural region very similar to Ventura and Salinas, California. This region received little rain during the drought and there is an overall downward trend in how much water the region has been receiving over time.

The Government has worked to build several small reservoirs and on-farm irrigation ponds in this region to ensure agricultural needs. One reservoir we visited provides 50,000 acres with water and is capable of holding water to overcome short term droughts and floods that can impact the communities that live in the region. Specialty crops grown here include lettuce, table grapes, grapes for pisco (distilled alcoholic drink) and citrus. At this particular reservoir, operation managers collect weather data and share this information with the growers through smart phone apps. Management of the reservoir was moved from a public project to a privately operated system, after construction, with growers and others paying for operation and maintenance costs.

Manager of the Puclaro Dam outside La Serena speaks to the Climate Smart Agriculture delegation.

The La Serena region is also home to a few of the research stations associated with the Instituto de Investigaciones Agropecuarias (INIA). Very similar to the University of California Research Extension Centers, INIA focuses on on-farm agricultural research and extension services distribution to farmers through field days (irrigation efficiency and pesticide applications were among the top priorities). Grower outreach and on-farm adaptation of new technologies and practices has proved challenging in the small farm community, but INIA remains dedicated to providing assistance to small farmers in helping them adapt to a climate change.

Climate smart agriculture delegation visits INIA and discusses irrigation/water use efficiency and vegetable production research

In reflecting on the California-Chile Climate Smart Agriculture mission, I am very happy at the outcome, humbled to travel with a wonderful group of intelligent and curious stakeholders and look forward to additional information sharing to come through webinars and other activities between California and Chile.

California’s Climate Smart Ag delegation – (left to right) Brooks Ohlson, Jeffrey Creque, Ellen Hanak, Don Cameron, DeeDee D’Adamo, John Chandler, Secretary Karen Ross, Doug Parker, Sebastián Pacheco (Punto Azul), Frank Muller, Paul Robins, Derek Azevedo, Aaron Lange and Josh Eddy



Posted in Climate Change, Climate Smart Agriculture, Specialty Crops | Leave a comment

Video – Kicking off California Soils Week!

CDFA Secretary Karen Ross joined the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and other partners today to kick-off the first-ever California Soils Week, which is being celebrated from December 4 to December 7.

Secretary Ross led a ribbon-cutting in front of an informational panel display at the State Capitol. With her (L to R) are NRCS acting conservationist for California Raymond Dotson; Michael Dimock, president, Roots of Change; Mary Kaems, principal consultant for California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon; and Brian Shobe of the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN).

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Soil Power! From the New York Times

This is California Soils Week (December 4 to December 7). World Soils Day is on December 5. 

By Jacques Leslie

The last great hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change may lie in a substance so commonplace that we typically ignore it or else walk all over it: the soil beneath our feet.

The earth possesses five major pools of carbon. Of those pools, the atmosphere is already overloaded with the stuff; the oceans are turning acidic as they become saturated with it; the forests are diminishing; and underground fossil fuel reserves are being emptied. That leaves soil as the most likely repository for immense quantities of carbon.

Now scientists are documenting how sequestering carbon in soil can produce a double dividend: It reduces climate change by extracting carbon from the atmosphere, and it restores the health of degraded soil and increases agricultural yields. Many scientists and farmers believe the emerging understanding of soil’s role in climate stability and agricultural productivity will prompt a paradigm shift in agriculture, triggering the abandonment of conventional practices like tillage, crop residue removal, mono-cropping, excessive grazing and blanket use of chemical fertilizer and pesticide. Even cattle, usually considered climate change culprits because they belch at least 25 gallons of methane a day, are being studied as a potential part of the climate change solution because of their role in naturally fertilizing soil and cycling nutrients.

The climate change crisis is so far advanced that even drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions won’t prevent a convulsive future by itself — the amount of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere ensures dire trouble ahead. The most plausible way out is to combine emission cuts with “negative-emission” or “drawdown” technologies, which pull greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and into the other pools. Most of these proposed technologies are forms of geoengineering, dubious bets on huge climate manipulations with a high likelihood of disastrous unintended consequences.

On the other hand, carbon sequestration in soil and vegetation is an effective way to pull carbon from the atmosphere that in some ways is the opposite of geoengineering. Instead of overcoming nature, it reinforces it, promoting the propagation of plant life to return carbon to the soil that was there in the first place — until destructive agricultural practices prompted its release into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. That process started with the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago and accelerated over the last century as industrial farming and ranching rapidly expanded.

Read More

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment