The VINE Blog

VINE Insider Insights: Karen Ross

by | January 25, 2024

In the first edition of our VINE Insider Insight series, our Communications Director Hanif Houston sits down with Secretary Karen Ross of the California Department of Food and Agriculture for an insightful Q&A. In this conversation, Ross shares her journey from a farm in western Nebraska to leading one of the most significant agricultural departments in the United States, and discusses the intricate balance between agricultural practices, technological advancements, and environmental considerations. Her invaluable perspectives offer a glimpse into the ongoing efforts and strategies in place to advance sustainable food production in California.

Can you share with us a little about your journey leading up to your current role as Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture? How have your early experiences and professional experiences helped shape your vision for the department?

Absolutely, it’s been a quite a journey for me. It all started where I grew up, on a farm in western Nebraska. Farming there is distinct – it’s dry land farming, reliant on rainfall for moisture, with poor soil quality and a shorter growing season. This leads to different cropping patterns, focusing mainly on feed grains, wheat, and cattle.

It wasn’t until I left farming that I realized its profound impact on me. Agriculture had shaped my values and work ethic. Leaving it created a void, a sense that I was intrinsically connected to agriculture. This realization coincided with my growing passion for public policy, understanding its significant influence on markets and its ability to either drive desirable actions or create obstacles.

My career then took several turns. I worked for a United States Senator, participated in the Nebraska Agricultural Leadership Program, and was in the midst of assisting a friend’s U.S. Senate campaign when my husband landed his dream job in California.

Moving to California, I was initially unsure about its agricultural scene, my knowledge limited to its beaches and movie stars. However, I quickly discovered the state’s agricultural marvels. During informational interviews, including one with the California Farm Bureau, I was astonished by the crop diversity.

My career in California included working with the Agricultural Council of California, representing cooperatives at the state legislature, leading the California Wine Grape Growers, traveling to various wine-producing countries, and establishing internationally recognized programs like the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium and the California Sustainable Wine Growing Program.

Later, I served as Chief of Staff to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack during his first term, and then Governor Jerry Brown appointed me as California’s Secretary of Agriculture.

How has this journey shaped me? Discovering California’s agriculture was exhilarating. Unlike what I knew – bulk commodity crops that dominate Farm Bill programs – California is the country’s largest producer of high value specialty crops like tree nuts, fresh fruits, vegetables and wine. It’s  market-driven and our farmers tend to have a better sense of consumer trends.   Farmers and ranchers are constantly innovating and adapting, driven by challenges like water scarcity and labor availability.  California farmers meet stringent  environmental and labor standards as a result of operating in a highly urbanized state that shapes public policy and regulations.   Even though we are the country’s largest agricultural producer and a significant contributor to the state’s economy, California has a very diverse economy unlike many ag producing states, like Nebraska, where ag makes up the majority of the economy.

My goal is to share this excitement about the opportunities in agriculture and ensure we support our farmers to continue being successful and pivotal to California’s unique identity.

Great insights, thank you. As we look ahead to 2024, could you outline the key priorities for the department in the upcoming year? I’m particularly interested in how technological innovation and sustainability are being integrated into these goals.

As far as technology innovations are concerned, state government might not be the lead as an investor but our public policy serves as a signal to the market, and our investment in public higher education institutions certainly is a foundation of the ecosystem of research and development stimulating innovation and attracting new technology.   The best funding opportunities right now–real opportunities–I believe, are with the federal government, with new and significant investments in manufacturing, research and development, infrastructure modernization and a low-carbon economy.  We’re focused across the Newsom Administration on leveraging federal funds to bring significant investment to our state to stimulate the economy

When considering our priorities at CDFA, I think about the current challenges. We’re facing two emergency situations. One is an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza, severely affecting our poultry sector, especially smaller producers in the North Coast and commercial flocks in the Central Valley. With new cage-free environments for layers, controlling virus spread is tougher. It’s in the wild bird population, so we’re focusing on enhancing biosecurity measures. This is an area where innovations utilizing data analytics and artificial intelligence for earlier detection may bring us additional strategies to prevent the fast spread of the virus.

Our other emergency is invasive fruit fly infestations at numbers we have not experienced before. We’re dealing with two new species, the Tau and Queensland fruit flies, as well as a large infestation of the Oriental fruit fly and an infestation of the Mediterranean fruit fly.

We’re collaborating with the UC and CSU on a high-risk pathway analysis taking into account climate change and utilizing years of data points to evaluate introductions of invasive pests considering new dynamics of e-commerce, tourism, inbound cargo, and changes in goods movement at points of origin.  This is an area ripe for innovation and new technologies. 

When we think about the Mediterranean fruit fly, CDFA led in the deployment of Sterile Insect Technique rather than the approach of 30 years ago with aerial spraying of pesticides.  Now, we do routine flights to release sterile fruit flies to prevent infestations, and for all our pest eradication programs we look for biological solutions first.  This is important, especially since many infestations occur in urban areas.

We are looking forward to some doing some trials using detector dog teams to sniff out larvae in fruit, which may help us avoid fruit removal within neighborhoods to break the cycle of infestation.

While addressing these issues, we’re continuing to administer our Climate Smart Ag Programs [to date CDFA has administered over $500 million in farmer grants and technical assistance provider grants].  Adapting to a hotter, drier future, producing more food with a smaller environmental footprint, and stewarding our soils and ecosystems to draw down carbon and increase biodiversity increases our resiliency and requires innovation, and all that represents a huge opportunity for new technology.  We’re partnering with Western Growers and The VINE, focusing on robotics and automation for efficiency and workforce sustainability, especially in extreme heat conditions. We’re also investing in workforce development to ensure no one is left behind in this transition to a climate-resilient economy.

So, these are a few key areas we’re focusing on, ensuring we connect with UCANR extension, farmers, and regulatory agencies to understand and adapt to new technologies, informing and educating to avoid regulatory barriers.

Thank you for that insightful response. I believe it will resonate strongly with the innovators in our audience. Building on that topic, could you explain how the department assists agri-tech startups, especially those emphasizing sustainability and climate resilience? Furthermore, are there specific opportunities for these startups to collaborate with the department and access government-sponsored assistance programs or grants?

The Department of Food and Agriculture doesn’t have a direct connection with startups. Our main focus is supporting farmers and their production aspects. For startups looking for support, the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development, known as GO Biz, is the right place to go. GO Biz offers various support opportunities such as grant programs and research and development tax credits, which are crucial for certain types of work.

In the realm of energy, particularly for improvements in energy efficiency or transitioning from petroleum products to alternative energies, the California Energy Commission is the go-to agency. They offer numerous opportunities in California for such initiatives.

There is a very helpful portal at the State of California’s Office of Planning and Research that showcases grant opportunities within our state agencies but also provides links to new federal programs. With the investment from the Biden administration in technology and the shift towards a green economy and low-carbon future, there are incredible opportunities available.

Also, our labor agency, while more focused on training and upskilling our current workforce, is another resource that could be beneficial. It’s not specifically for startups, but it plays a role in shaping a workforce that can support various industry needs, including those of startups.

Effective communication is key in any industry. From your perspective, what methods or channels have proven most successful for agricultural stakeholders to share their ideas and feedback with your department? How can they best engage with your office and other related agencies?

Many entities are fully leveraging our Office of Environmental Farming and Innovation. This office is at the forefront of innovation, housing all of our Climate Smart Agriculture programs.  An area of focus is our partnership with dairy families of California for innovative solutions to reduce livestock methane emissions. We’re also addressing enteric fermentation.

This work is particularly exciting, as few places in the world have mandates for methane reductions like California, and we are actively investing to support these initiatives in the livestock sector. The innovation here is driven by a public-private partnership. The dairy industry, through programs like Dairy CARES and the Dairy Research Foundation, collaborates closely with the UC system and UC ANR.

I am a strong advocate of our partnerships with UC ANR and the CSU system. As part of our AgVision initiative, we are developing a master plan for agricultural science, technology, research and education to guide us for the next 10 to 20 years. This plan is crucial for keeping pace with developments in public policy and regulatory frameworks. I regularly engage with my sister agencies about UCANR extension programs and more.

A notable initiative is our funding of 10 positions for community climate-smart agriculture educators. This ensures comprehensive outreach, from the smallest to the largest farms across the state, helping them connect with our programs and effectively utilize our grant offerings.

Additionally, with the new $20 billion in conservation funding available from the USDA, and other federal programs through the Natural Resource Conservation Service, my role extends to being a convener and connector. Even in instances where I don’t have a direct program to offer support, my focus is on facilitating communication across all sister agencies and with colleagues in the UC and CSU systems.

Thank you. Now, moving more into technology and innovation, what recent technological advancements in agriculture or food production are you most excited about, and what specific developments are you looking forward to the most?

Well, I’m in awe of everything in the agricultural technology sector. Automation and robotics, for example, have immense possibilities. They’re visible, tangible, and we can clearly see how they alleviate some of the backbreaking labor in farming. This is something that continually excites me. I’m also fascinated each year by the advancements in irrigation efficiency — how we’re becoming more precise and careful with our use of resources. And the work we’re doing in reducing nitrogen fertilizer use and moving towards biological solutions is very impressive.

The opportunities in composting and converting biomass into new soil amendments, like biochar, are thrilling. Similarly, the prospects in pest management with biological solutions, including biopesticides and predator pests, are promising.

Then there’s plant breeding. Although it doesn’t show immediate results like a robotic weeder in the field, it’s vital for adaptation. The potential here, especially with our annual crops, is enormous. And let’s not forget about our trees and vines, which are crucial to our landscape. Are we attracting enough young scientists to this field? I worry about that, yet I meet young scientists all the time who are deeply engaged with biotechnology and the latest developments, like CRISPR, for plant breeding.

This is essential for feeding the world with fewer inputs and for ensuring climate resiliency and food security far into the future. These advancements excite me, and I recognize their importance. It’s amazing to see how our academic campuses are connected to what’s happening in the field. The synergy of the entire system working together – how awesome is that?”

Turning our attention now to sustainability and climate change – you’ve touched on this in earlier responses, but I’d like to delve a bit deeper. Could you expand on the specific strategies and initiatives your department is employing to foster sustainability within the agricultural sector?

Yes, I’m happy to discuss that. A significant portion of our work involves collaborating with various agricultural commodity boards and commissions. We have a variety of advisory boards within the Department, made up of farmers of all sizes from diverse crop backgrounds. Our focus is on engaging with stakeholders and community-based organizations to further the work that’s already in progress. This effort extends beyond just my department; it’s a crucial element of our approach to sustainability.

Much of this work impacts small and mid-sized farmers. They often struggle with compliance reporting and paperwork, and they’re concerned about unintentionally violating new laws. Therefore, our objective is to work alongside our sister agencies to make these processes more streamlined.

Our intention isn’t to bypass the goals of these regulations. Rather, we’re aiming to create smarter regulations that aid in compliance, simplify it, and make it less costly. This is a key focus for us, and we’re continuously looking for ways, including IT technology, to make compliance reporting easier.

Our work across various agencies is crucial. Often, agencies work in isolation, but part of our job is to ensure there’s effective communication between them. For example, we worked with the Water Board several years ago to address legacy issues of nitrates in groundwater and the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program.  UC ANR was our partner in creating the curriculum for training farmers and crop advisors, and ANR is a long-time partner in our Fertilizer Research and Education Program.

We’re also deeply invested in the concept of a circular economy, aiming to eliminate ‘waste’ from our vocabulary. This includes turning waste into compost, reducing food waste, and converting production agriculture and food processing byproducts into valuable soil amendments, alternatives to synthetic fertilizers, bioenergy, and other useful products with revenue streams. We’re exploring nutrient extraction, renewable energy from dairy operations, and the use of biochar and biomass from agricultural and food production. These initiatives are in line with regional community economic strategies.

For example, initiatives like the Future of Food Innovation Initiative from Fresno and Merced, and the BEAM Circular Economy from Modesto and Stockton are essential. We work with these initiatives to demonstrate their value to the agricultural sector. Our role includes ensuring that extension professionals and those in UC ANR are both aware of and participating in these initiatives. We also support the scientific expertise and practical knowledge crucial for transitioning to a green economy and sustainable agriculture.

We’re not just fixing past problems; we’re actively promoting climate-smart and sustainable agricultural practices. This includes making sure everyone has access to locally grown, healthy food. Our farm-to-school initiative is one response to this need.

As I discuss these agricultural opportunities, I realize I may sometimes stray from directly answering your question. But what I want to emphasize is that agriculture is full of opportunities—some obvious, some less so. These range from delivering healthy food to the table using best practices, to embracing new innovations and technologies as part of the solution.

Do you have a success story you could share with us? Specifically, a story where some form of technological innovation in agriculture – and it doesn’t have to be about robots or AI – made a positive impact on a community in California.

I always circle back to the importance of policy. If we’re sending the wrong signals to the marketplace through public policy, we won’t achieve sustainable solutions. For instance, take our ‘Hotter, Drier Future‘ water supply strategy, which includes conservation as a way of life. Over the past 30 years, agriculture has significantly reduced the amount of applied water, thereby also cutting down on synthetic fertilizer use and protecting local drinking water wells. This is an area where innovation and technology have played a key role in ongoing improvements.

More recently, part of our solution for a ‘Hotter, Drier Future’ has been to achieve at least 500,000 acre-feet of groundwater recharge annually.  Thanks to the work of innovative Central Valley farmers partnering with NGO’s like Sustainable Conservation and cooperative extension, and commodity organizations like the Almond Board of California, tremendous work was done to prepare for not only water banks and spreading ponds for recharge, but to also include farmers taking flood flows onto their vineyards, orchards and open fields for Managed Aquifer Recharge.

In 2023 we were in our fourth year of a historic and impactful drought, marked by higher temperatures and drier soil, which then shifted to the worst flooding in 70 years. We utilized technology and improved forecasting to better understand the moisture available in the upper watershed, and we conducted real-time analysis of water release from dams, creating more storage space. Flood flows were diverted not only to protect downstream communities from severe flooding but also to replenish groundwater basins. We managed to divert at least 3.8 million acre-feet of flood flows, aiding in recharging individual domestic water wells, supporting future farming, and benefiting ecosystems.

This experience shows the vital role of a combination of technologies in preparing us for the future, as atmospheric rivers and erratic weather patterns become more common. Groundwater recharge, conservation, water recycling, and desalinization – including brackish inland waters – and completed storage projects are all necessary to meet our future water needs. This presents an exciting opportunity, and it demonstrates our scientific expertise and innovative spirit.

Our UC system plays a critical role as an economic driver, with discoveries on campuses being translated into practical applications on the ground through ANR and Cooperative Extension.  This applies to state agencies, small-scale farmers, and large-scale farmers alike.

This is the essence of a land-grant university: mission-driven to solve real-world problems and prepare us for the future.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are vital in all sectors. How does your department engage with a diverse range of stakeholders in the agricultural community? What steps are being taken to ensure that growth within the sector is inclusive, considering the diverse backgrounds and scales of farms and businesses involved?

Thank you for your question. It highlights a crucial priority for Governor Newsom and the First Partner as we transition to a green and low-carbon economy — ensuring no one is left behind. This is why workforce development investments are so vital. In our programs, we’ve learned significant lessons, especially during the global pandemic. We realized the importance of reaching out to our hardest-to-reach communities, which often include immigrant and historically underserved communities. In these efforts, language, culture, and effective outreach are key, making the role of community-based organizations like UC Cooperative Extension indispensable.

Before the pandemic, we established an ad hoc committee for small farmers to ensure our programs include small farms. We also created our first-ever BIPOC advisory committee, including urban farmers and small farmers from historically underserved populations within the farming community. This initiative has been hugely informative. In 2023 we transitioned these groups from ad hoc to standing committees.

Centering equity in our work across all agencies of government is critical.  The Strategic Grown Council has played an important role in deploying training programs throughout state government, embracing diversity, inclusion, and equity, and applying these principles in community economic resiliency funds.

California is fortunate to have 12 or 13 robust regional economies, so we aren’t overly dependent on a single economic driver. Our focus is on fostering inclusive economic development within these regions and across the state. This includes sustainability, climate-smart strategies, smarter land use, housing, and workforce training.

For startups, corporations, or investors looking to make an impact within California’s agricultural sector, what insights or guidance would you offer? How can they maximize their contribution and align their efforts with the state’s agricultural goals and values?

Well, first of all, I want them to know that there’s a huge opportunity. My friend Glenda Humiston [Vice President of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources] often says we may provide a slower rate of return, but it’s a very steady rate of return. So, you have to be patient with the capital. But when you think about being mission-driven, purpose-driven and values-driven, the ability to grow and deliver food in the most sustainable way is critical.

Climate change and global conflicts are threatening nutrition security. So, our state is the right place to make investments in this area. We have scientific institutions, and the UC is a leader in that. We have Nobel Laureates, investors, the Silicon Valley ecosystem of innovation and technology, and the most productive ag systems in the country.

I would ask investors to not fall in love with a solution before connecting to the people who have to apply it practically in the field or in a production plant. And that’s where The VINE is a connector, translating amazing discoveries into practical, on-the-ground solutions.

Our partnership with The VINE has been critical, including memoranda of understanding we’ve created with countries and regional governments like the Netherlands, Israel, and New Zealand, and on a statewide basis with Australia and Canada. We want to continue that work.

I’m not chauvinistic in thinking we have all the answers here, but I do believe that California can and will continue to be a major driver in innovation and technology, especially in healthy food production with access for all.

In that regard, because of our scientific expertise and innovation, I want to stress the opportunities for more biological solutions. I think that’s the next chapter of agriculture globally. California can be a leader in this area, which is important for investment in food production both locally and globally.

It’s terrific to have The VINE operating in this space. It has really taken off – it’s a startup for startups.