By Heather Hacking
“We need to reconnect farmers with consumers and create an ag-literate populace,” said Karen Ross, secretary of California Department of Food and Agriculture, who spoke to students at the Chico State University Farm Tuesday. “If people don’t understand agriculture, we lose policy that keeps our food secure.”
A fortunate outcome of the drought is that people have become more aware of ag issues, Ross said. People are “paying more attention” and learning that with drought, land isn’t farmed, which means fewer jobs and impacts to local economies.
Ross was in Chico Tuesday as guest speaker at the Chico Rotary Club. She also toured the University Farm before meeting with students and local ag leaders.
The state Department of Agriculture has a lot going on, with 400 commodities grown in the state, and ongoing efforts to prevent the spread of animal diseases, invasive species and pests.
In addition to growing products used throughout the United States, California is also a major entryway for imports, she said.
This provides many challenges. Wood packaging on cargo ships is an especially important issue for keeping pests from crossing into the United States, Ross said.
As is the case with many government programs, CDFA is doing more with less, The budget was trimmed by 33 percent in the past two years, Ross said.
The strategy, for pests and weeds for example, will be to “identify high-risk pathways,” rather than “waiting at the borders.”
One student asked about a recent proposal by the governor to eliminate grant funding for FFA ag education.
When asked how to lobby against this move, Ross said students themselves can send a powerful message. Students in the “blue jackets” of FFA can and should “stand up at school board meetings” and talk about the importance of investing in youth, she continued.
Jamie Johansson, a member of the Butte County Farm Bureau, said Assembly Bill 2033 has been introduced to reinstate the $4.1 million in grant funding that is on the chopping block.
What about conflicting messages that come from various sectors of agriculture, asked Dave Daley, an instructor at Chico State?
Ross said there is room for many different segments of the food industry — organic and conventional and all the variations in between.
“Consumers want assurance that they have a choice,” Ross said. Having many different markets also provides opportunities for producers. She said she knows many farmers who grow organic fields, as well as genetically modified foods, to meet different market demands.
Embracing diversity provides resilience, she said.
The problem is when it feels like “us vs. them.”
For students wondering which direction to go with after college, Ross encouraged young people to consider careers with CDFA and USDA. Many people are at retirement age, and a fresh workforce is welcome, she said.
For any ag producer, it’s important to be able to communicate, and to clearly express themselves through writing, she added.
The stories of the farm cannot be told in “140 characters,” the length of a Twitter entry. Also, the ability to communicate science to non-farmers will become increasingly important, Ross noted.
Another job gap will be in farm management, Ross said. A trillion dollars worth of ag assets are ready to transition to new leadership, as farmers reach older ages.
Ross said climate change is another topic frequently discussed.
Farming has always included adaptation, Ross said, from equipment use to ongoing plant research. As the world population increases and open land decreases, improvements to farming will continue. Her dream, Ross said, is that plant breeders develop plants that provide food, and also useful byproducts. Or perhaps plants will be developed that help improve groundwater problems or other land issues, Ross said.