Interview with Karen Ross, Secretary of California Department of Food and Agriculture

Secretary Karen Ross Portrait

The following interview with Karen Ross, Secretary of California Department of Food and Agriculture, appears in World Agriculture Outlook 2014-2015 Edition.

Karen Ross was appointed Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) on Jan. 12, 2011, by Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. Ross has deep leadership experience in agricultural issues nationally, internationally, and in California. Prior to joining CDFA, Ross was chief of staff for U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a position she accepted in 2009.


World Agriculture Outlook: How big a part of the state’s economy is agriculture? And how much of that is exports?

Karen Ross: Outside of Hollywood and Silicon Valley, California is a farming state. More than 10 percent of the nation’s food and agricultural products are grown and processed in California, and our farmers and ranchers play a vital role within the international marketplace. By the numbers, California produces $42.6 billion in agricultural products and exported more than $18 billion.


What are California’s top export commodities?

California is blessed with a diversity of agricultural products. Specialty crops (tree nuts, vegetables, fruit, and wine) dominate the state’s top 10 agricultural exports; however, dairy, beef cattle, and cotton also play a significant role. Dairy products are the state’s second-largest agricultural export, valued at $1.3 billion, only $2 billion shy of our leading export – almonds, valued at $3.3 billion.


How does California compare to other states in terms of agricultural production?

California is the leading agricultural producer and exporter in the nation. Part of this success is the state’s unique Mediterranean climate and fertile soils that allow for the production of a diversity of agricultural products. Also, California has always been the land of innovation. This is something that has helped inspire farmers and ranchers to make California agriculture what it is today – a global brand like no other.


How has agriculture evolved in California in terms of percentage of the population involved in agriculture?

Across the nation, we are seeing a shift of attitude towards agriculture and to individuals that grow and raise our food. More and more people are interested in where their food is coming from, how it is produced, and who is growing it. This is exciting, because this interest in our food supply has invigorated millennials and others to reconnect to our nation’s roots in farming. As a result, we are seeing the growth of farmers markets, urban farms, and other direct-to-market opportunities. This interest in farming and food is something we should strongly cultivate and encourage. The average age of a farmer in the United States and California is more than 58 years, and less than 1 percent of our population is engaged in agricultural production. By embracing this renewed interest in farming and food, everyone can benefit.


What is the breakdown of acreage within the state dedicated to crops and livestock?

California has approximately 25 million acres of farm and rangeland and our crops represent a little over 9.5 million. Irrigated agriculture accounts for more than 76 percent of our cropland.


How does CDFA facilitate communications between international buyers and California suppliers?

Within California, our agency works closely with a multitude of nonprofit and locally based trade associations to facilitate direct business-to-business communications. Also, California’s agricultural marketing orders, boards, and commissions serve as a primary resource for farmers and ranchers. As a state, we rely heavily on the resources and expertise of the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service and their offices around the globe.


What type of resources does your office offer local producers?

Agricultural producers, packers, and manufacturers have a variety of trade services available to them at both the local and regional level. Our agency has partnered with California’s Community Colleges, which has a network of international trade centers located throughout the state. These “Centers for International Trade Development” provide training and services to California businesses interested in exporting. California is also a member of the Western United States Agricultural Trade Association (WUSATA®), a nonprofit trade organization that conducts market development activities such as trade shows and trade missions, in which California companies can participate.


Can you highlight a program or two in place to assist companies with international marketing efforts?

One program that has been very beneficial to California is the State Trade and Export Promotion [STEP] Program, which was an initiative under the U.S. Small Business Administration. This program was a direct benefit to small businesses within California, providing opportunities for them to expand sales and business internationally. As part of this program, over a two-year period, the state of California was able to conduct 84 internationally focused activities with more than 900 businesses. STEP provided the opportunity for California to engage several industry sectors (including agriculture) in market development and promotional activities.


What are you doing that differs from other states?

Overall, I believe we have more similarities than differences in the marketing and promotion of U.S. agricultural products in the international arena. California may have an advantage with our iconic images and lifestyle – California is truly a place like no other – but in the end, we are all working together to ensure opportunities for U.S. business overseas.


How are California’s farmers adapting to the ongoing three-year drought, and what sort of impact is this having on overseas buyers?

The drought continues to be a significant impact to the state. As of July, it is estimated that the total economic cost to the state is $2.2 billion. This includes the loss of more than 17,000 seasonal jobs, and the fallowing of 428,000 acres (or 5 percent of California’s irrigated cropland). More than 81 percent of the state is in an extreme drought.

Our farmers and ranchers have been very proactive in adapting to drought periods and have taken significant steps to use water as efficiently and effectively as possible. When crises like this drought occur, everything that can be done on the farm is being done – deficit irrigation, fallowing, drip tape/micro-misters, etc. The long-term challenges of water storage and groundwater management are also being addressed.

Overall, it is still too early to see what the impact of the drought will be to overseas buyers – a lot depends on the current crops and what the upcoming winter will be like. However, for those concerned – California will always be open for business.


Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I cannot emphasize enough the important role and services that the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service provides to businesses and state government. The overseas offices are a key resource in helping companies navigate foreign markets, make connections with buyers, and receive market information and reports. I’ve had the opportunity to visit several offices over the last few years and the dedication and commitment these individuals have to assisting companies is unsurpassed.


Caption: Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Credit: USDA photo by Ken Hammond

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