California Growin’

California Secretary of Agriculture Karen Ross on automation, GMOs and water use

Back Q&A Jun 7, 2017 By Rich Ehisen

California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross is far more than just an administrator. Ross grew up on a farm in Nebraska, where she and her husband still own an 800-acre farm and ranch. We sat down with her to talk about the challenges and opportunities currently facing the Golden State’s agricultural industry.

President Trump has promised to greatly restrict immigration, which has long been the source of farm labor in this state. How has this impacted California agriculture?

Agriculture was the first economic sector to acknowledge we have documentation issues within our workforce. [UC Davis professor emeritus] Philip Martin has identified that at least 75 percent of the agricultural workforce may not have accurate documentation. It’s something that has to get addressed. Many are full-time employees who stay long in their jobs. Employers are very concerned because they know these people very, very well. They’re part of the same community, so it’s very concerning from the human compassion point of view. From the business side, will there be enough hands to do the work for the crops in California? [This] matters to the rest of the nation, because California produces 50 percent of the country’s fruits, nuts and vegetables, and 20 percent of the milk. It takes a lot of hands, and it’s not just anybody who wants to come out and do that kind of work. So, have we already seen the impact because there aren’t enough people to pick the crops? Yes, and it will continue to be that way.

California produces 50 percent of the country’s fruits, nuts and vegetables, and 20 percent of the milk. It takes a lot of hands, and it’s not just anybody who wants to come out and do that kind of work. So, have we already seen the impact because there aren’t enough people to pick the crops? Yes, and it will continue to be that way.

How is technology, specifically automation, impacting agricultural workforce needs?

We are going to see an acceleration of automation. We’ve already seen it inside packing houses. A citrus or a tree-fruit packing house used to have dozens of people on the sorting line, stacking boxes or fork lifts. But you can go to a packing house today and you’ll see robots doing the stacking and moving things around, with sensor and laser technology that’s actually doing the first and second sorts. I’ve been through similar dairy facilities. We haven’t seen it to that same level on farms, but it is happening there too. Mechanical harvesters have replaced a lot of the hand laborers, except in the highest end of wine grape harvest. But a lot of the labor costs are actually in the pruning, so a lot of research work now is being done in robotic pruning. What we’ve learned from all of this is it’s not enough to just focus on that technology. To make the end harvester work, we have to go all the way back to the beginning: plant genetics, raising the beds, designing the fields differently, changing what they are planted in. We’re just beginning to scratch the surface of what’s possible.

Where are we in terms of farmers fully adopting the most efficient water-use technologies?

We don’t have real specific data on how much drip irrigation is in use right now, but we know that over the last few decades we’ve lowered our overall water use on a statewide basis in agriculture by 8 percent. We’ve also increased productivity by 57 percent and economic activity by 96 percent, so that shows what’s possible. That’s with a pretty good baseline of about 60-65 percent of the acreage on drip irrigation … A lot of the new investment now is in soil sensor technology and being able to tie that system all together, because every farmer wants to be able to turn their irrigation system on at the precise time with the precise amount of water in exactly the right place.

Your agency is one of three tasked with regulating legal marijuana in California, specifically the licensing of weed cultivators. What impact will legal weed have on the agriculture industry?

It’s too early to know. Part of that is because the local governments also have a big say in what is happening in their county or in their city. Some counties have already said no to outdoor grows, so they’re really going to push [cultivation] into greenhouses, warehouses, even box cars. There is already concern about adequate buffers for different pesticide-use patterns with current crops and what that does to local land values, lease rates and availability. [Marijuana] is going to create even more competition for scarce resources. We [have] to bring all of this into the same high labor and environmental standards that we ask the rest of agriculture to do.

What is California doing to prepare for the impacts of climate change on agriculture?

Well, there is mitigation and there is adaptation, and there are many statewide policies to address both. For instance, we have to do a lot more work on plant breeding, which is starting to happen. But one of the things I’m most excited about is looking at the ability of farms, ranches and forests to store carbon, and how we incentivize those practices. That could be everything from more cover crops to adding windbreaks and buffer zones that will also improve pollinator habitat and wildlife habitat. In a state where we have so many trees and vine crops that are permanent, it’s being able to add compost or cover crops and encouraging even more minimal or no-till farming, so we’re enhancing organic matter in our soils, which also increases the ability to store water in those soils and help us be more resilient in future droughts. So it’s like a win-win-win win and that’s what I’m most excited about.

Where do GMOs fit into all of this?

I think the relevant question is whether we as a society will be comfortable with the advances of science. That comes down to transparency. Is [the science] publicly available or is it developed by a few privately-owned corporations? When it comes to GMOs, we have to come to grips with that question because it is hugely important when it comes to the next chapter of how we accelerate plant breeding and the new technologies that are coming. What matters is that people know about [the science used in the product], that we’re transparent about it, that [GMOs] are labeled and that we are about maintaining choice in the marketplace. But we have to be transparent.

President Trump’s proposed budget imposes really significant cuts on the U.S. Department of Agriculture. What would such cuts mean for California farmers?

These cuts are being proposed at a time when we need that kind of innovation and investment and research development more than we ever have, partly because of climate change. We are as competitive as we are globally because of the investments we made 50 years ago. But the return on that has somewhat plateaued. Should all new investment come from the public sector? No, and it doesn’t. But if we want these innovations to be for the public benefit and not just the corporate bottom line, we must continue to invest in this type of research. And especially in this country where our research must also be extended to the end users. That’s where you get that continual innovation cycle. And we cannot afford to give that up. We also need to bring private dollars to the table to leverage and optimize that investment. But I cannot underscore how critically important I think the investment in the public research has been to stimulating the innovation that we see now. 

GMOs remain a hot topic in California. What are your thoughts on eating GMO foods or on the importance of labeling? Tweet us  @COMSTOCKSMAG.