Growing & Winemaking


Grapegrower Interview: Karen Ross

January 2012
by Laurie Daniel

Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, has deep roots in ag. She grew up on a farm in western Nebraska, where her family still grows wheat, sunflowers, feed grains and cattle. After graduating from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and holding several jobs in that state—including directing state operations for the late U.S. Sen. Edward Zorinsky—she moved west to California in 1989.

Ross is probably best known to people in the wine industry because of her 13-year tenure as president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers in Sacramento, where she participated in the creation of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Program. Before that, she was vice president of government affairs for the Agricultural Council of California, representing farmer-owned cooperatives.

In 2009, she became chief of staff for U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a job she held until Gov. Jerry Brown appointed her as secretary of the CDFA in 2011. Brown’s administration has had to navigate a budget crisis affecting all areas of government, including the CDFA.

Wines & Vines: Given your background as president at the California Association of Winegrape Growers, people involved in the wine and grapegrowing industries must have been happy with your appointment. In your current role, what goals and objectives do you have for those industries?

Karen Ross: I would like to address several points. We have a governor who is engaging the public in an important conversation about the appropriate role of state government. He is very serious about fixing the budget so we can focus on growing the economy and creating jobs. Our immediate goal at CDFA is to evaluate the agency within those guidelines. We are in the process of making general fund reductions called for by the governor. In so doing, we must make sure our comprehensive surveillance and rapid response systems are preserved so we can ensure food safety and protect agriculture from invasive pests and diseases. The California wine community knows first-hand the critical importance of the state’s ability to conduct early pest detection and rapid response to stop the movement of invasive pests (i.e., glassy-winged sharpshooter, light brown apple moth, European grapevine moth) and prevent their spread. My years of experience working for the wine industry have prepared me well for my current responsibility of protecting California from invasive species.

One of my top priorities in this job is process improvement. We are undertaking department-wide initiatives to streamline our systems and look for smarter, more efficient ways of providing our services. These systems have been built over several decades, and we should not be afraid to carefully examine them for areas of overlap and duplication and think about new ways to provide the same levels of protection. This approach will benefit producers of all California commodities, including wine and winegrapes.

W&V: How is California’s current budget situation likely to impact the state’s wine and grapegrowing industries? For example, could the state’s integrated pest management program be threatened, as it was for a time in New York?

Ross: After Gov. Brown proposed his budget in January, I began working with senior staff at CDFA to identify and convene key agricultural and industry individuals while still in my position at USDA. This consortium has helped us evaluate programs and assess potential impacts. The consortium began its work in January 2011 and represents a broad cross-section of California agriculture. I want to thank these industry leaders for their commitment in helping us reach the governor’s budget reduction target of $15 million for 2011-12, and another $15 million for 2012-13.

For 2011-12, we have agreed to a series of proposals that hit at some of the core functions of the department. To date, the solutions identified include a mixture of fund shifts, new or increased fees or assessments identified by industry groups, program efficiencies and reduction or elimination of programs. For example, in 2011-12, the Pierce’s Disease Control Program would replace more than $1.1 million from the general fund with increased assessments.

Everything in our general fund was on the table; all were unpleasant choices. As it stands now, a cut I want to mention to you is nearly $2 million from our border-protection stations. We have 16 stations positioned around the state. They are a first line of defense against invasive species in our state, catching thousands every year, so we could definitely feel the effect of this reduction. Other cuts will be made to trapping programs, our noxious and weed-management programs and our biological control program.

We don’t want to cut from any of these programs. We know the reductions will hurt. And, unfortunately, it could get much worse.

W&V: Are there likely to be changes in the near future regarding regulations affecting winegrape growers?

Ross: I am very interested in the regulatory climate for agriculture. For a number of years, concern about the cumulative impact of regulations that are often conflicting or redundant has been increasing, and I am determined to position CDFA to be of assistance. Throughout the department, we have knowledgeable scientific and technical expertise that provides credibility for all of our programs. I believe we can deploy that same level of scientific expertise to provide credible data, impact assessments and information about alternative strategies to other agencies in the regulatory arena. Naturally, this work would apply to the wine and winegrape sectors, in addition to California’s other commodities.

W&V: Water continues to be a contentious issue in California, even though the governor declared an end to the drought. What sort of movement do you see on this issue that might affect wineries and vineyards, either positively or negatively?

Ross: For the near term, Gov. Brown is almost exclusively focused on getting our fiscal house in order. If we can’t do that, it will be very difficult to do other things that we hope to accomplish. That being said, he clearly understands the critical importance of a reliable water supply for California agriculture.

During the campaign (in 2010), he published a fairly spe cific policy paper on water, based on his experience on the subject matter. As governor nearly 30 years ago, the governor attempted to complete the State Water Plan. When he tapped John Laird to be secretary of the Natural Resources Agency, he emphasized the importance of ensuring the supply and creating smart conservation of California’s water. The California wine community has shown leadership in energy and water conservation through its commitment to the Sustainable Winegrowing Program.

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