In Their Words: Karen Ross Secretary of CDFA


Karen Ross was recently reappointed Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture on January 9, 2019 by Governor Gavin Newsom. Secretary Ross has shown unmatched leadership in California’s agricultural issues, including environmental stewardship, climate change adaptation, and trade.

OPN had the pleasure of sitting down with Secretary Ross to discuss her vision for the future of Agriculture in California.

Organics Unlimited

OPN Connect: Congratulations on your second appointment as Secretary of Agriculture! What are some of the key initiatives you plan to continue and grow in the next few years?

KR: First is the continuation of our Climate Smart Ag practices, in particular the Healthy Soils Program. It’s critical that we figure out how to scale it up and engaged as many farmers as possible.  Healthy soils are a priority for our new Governor Gavin and we want it to be wildly successful for his agenda and because it’s the right thing to do for our landscape.

Maintaining the integrity of the organic program has been very important. The good work we did with organizations and growers to streamline the state organic program - never losing sight of the integrity of what California certified organic means. We will continue to be committed to this process!

Organic Produce Summit 2019

Nutrient management and the implementation of sustainable groundwater management in terms of water quality and availability. Healthy soils are a key component of that. Storing carbon and building organic matter in our soils dramatically improves the water holding capacity of our soils, they go hand in hand.

We have to be keenly aware of the water quality. We have legacy nitrate issues in our groundwater basins and have implemented programs and practices to prevent the movement of nitrates below the root zones but there is still work to do in this area and we must ensure safe, clean drinking water from these basins.

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OPN Connect: Are there new initiatives or issues you hope to address under your leadership?

KR: We recently hired our first CDFA Farm Equity Advisor, Thea Rittenhouse who started in October. This will present the opportunity to be very intentional across all the CDFA programs and divisions to make sure that information is available to all farmers across the state. No matter their background, the size of their farm or whether English is their first language. 

It’s a tremendous new opportunity for us to have a dedicated position to make sure we are doing everything we can to address equity issues across the spectrum of CDFA.

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Another exciting new initiative is one that was released in September, leading up to Governor Brown’s Global Climate Action Summit. The Biodiversity Initiative is a roadmap intended to protect the state’s natural heritage. It was one year in the making with the Office of Planning & Research, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and CDFA. 

OPN Connect: What opportunities do you see for California producers with the legalization of commercial Hemp in the Farm Bill? 

KR: There has been tremendous interest in the industrial hemp program. It’s amazing how many grower- processor entities have approached us and are interested in making significant investments in the state.

Heliae Development

Hemp will be a crop like other agricultural commodities except that it will require registration and testing for THC levels. We are in the process of developing regulations to set up registration, fees, testing and sampling protocols. 

The timeline is to have final regulations this spring, but we also have to submit these as state plans to USDA.  We anticipate about 300 new growers to get in the first year. There is strong interest in certified organic hemp too.

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One of the reasons I am excited to be part of the Newsom Administration is the Governor’s sincere commitment to connecting rural and urban California. His vision of how we depend on each other and are connected to each other and his goals to address equality and poverty in each.

Growing and processing hemp could provide additional diversity for the economies of our rural communities in California.

OPN Connect: How will organic cannabis be part of CDFA’s future plans?

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KR: We have dedicated staff that have been working on appellations and regulations for organic cannabis. We want them to be in sync with the California Organic Products Advisory Committee (COPAC) so that when Cannabis is legalized on the federal level, growers will already be aligned with organic regulations.

There is huge interest from both large and small-scale farmers. We all want to figure out how to make this a profitable business and one that grows with the best stewardship practices that we are known for in California.

It’s mandated that we have an organic cannabis program available by 2021. We were drowning in last minute license applications late last year and had to divert all of our staff to process licenses. We have dedicated staff who are excited to be working on organic. I feel confident we will meet our deadline and have an organic cannabis program available. 

OPN Connect: What role does organic agriculture play in CDFA’s vision for California?

KR: Organic agriculture is a critical component in California. We have seen consumer trend lines grow robustly.  It’s critical that we grow what consumers want. The growth in organic has provided multiple opportunities at all scales for all farmers to find that sweet spot in the marketplace.

Our new Healthy Soils Program is the foundation for organic. Extending this to all farmers along with the multiple benefits that come from sound soil health management is another way to bring the entire agricultural community together.

OPN Connect: In what ways can organic producers be more involved with CDFA and its programs?

KR: Organic growers can help lead the way in combatting climate change and helping to conserve our precious water resources. I am always looking for diversity on our advisory boards, commissions and marketing orders. It’s important for organic growers to play a leadership role and serve on all of these committees. If you have a few hours left in the day, please consider serving in a leadership position and l lending your voice to the process.

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Organic Produce Summit 2019
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