Member Spotlight: Karen Ross, California Department of Food and Agriculture

News Article -

This week's NASDA member spotlight is California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross. Secretary Ross was appointed to her position in January 2011.

How do you start your day?

When I’m not traveling around this big state, my day starts with an early morning spin class and then the newspaper, emails and online food, ag and business newsletters. I had a mini-epiphany about a month ago when I spent a morning out with our field staff who were removing an infected citrus tree from a backyard, and I couldn’t help thinking what great exercise shoveling would be as a new aerobics class at the gym!

What is the most important function of your department?

In short, our role is to support farmers and ranchers, but doing this includes much work!

Animal and plant health programs are core functions, but we are also part of the new economy through our Division of Weights and Measures that has helped bring to market alternative fuels and alternative transportation carriers (i.e., UBER or Lyft) with technology to consistently and accurately measure their trips and charge their customers! We oversee 54 marketing orders and state commissions, and more than 50 local fairs. The Department provides commodity inspection and audit programs; regulates rendering (approximately 75% of the biodiesel manufactured in this state is derived from inedible kitchen grease); a state organic program; the livestock feed industry; the fertilizer industry and now cannabis cultivation. We have a new Office of Environmental Farming and Innovation that administers incentive programs for climate smart agriculture practices, including on-farm water use efficiency; dairy digesters; alternative manure management practices; and healthy soils. These programs are funded with the state’s cap-and-trade auction proceeds through the Climate Investment Fund. To date more than $500 million has been invested in these climate smart ag programs plus farmland conservation; food processing energy efficiency; and a farm engine replacement program. To sum it up, our role is to support farmers and ranchers!

We do all this with our mission in mind, to serve the citizens of California by promoting and protecting a safe, healthy food supply and enhancing local and global agricultural trade, through efficient management, innovation and sound science, with a commitment to environmental stewardship.

Why is the Farm Bill important to California?

Farm Bill programs are enormously helpful to California agriculture as it works to remain sustainable and embrace the opportunities of the 21st century. The Farm Bill ensures affordable and healthy food to those who need it most; promotes conservation and environmental stewardship on working lands; invests in research to keep farmers and ranchers competitive; and brings much-needed support to help revitalize rural communities. And, of course, I have to give a special call-out to the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program for its ability to allow our state to target support to local needs. It has allowed us to address the wide diversity of our crops and farming systems.

What do you think is missing from the conversation when we don’t have women at the table and in leadership roles?

Having smart, capable, experienced, innovative women at the table in California agriculture means we add perspectives and ideas that would not otherwise be represented. That’s always constructive – especially in a state like ours with a very diverse population of forty million people. In my thirty years in California agriculture, I have witnessed a remarkable transformation in the inclusion of women at the policy table as well as managing commodity associations. We need more women willing to serve on our advisory boards and in leadership positions for our marketing orders and commissions.

In seven words or less, what is some advice you would offer your fellow agriculturalists?

Trust is our most precious commodity.