WINTERS, Calif. — California is not about to give up its advantage in the fresh produce industry.

California ag secretary has high hopes, long to-do list

Ashley Bentley

Mark Linder, program consultant and U.S. Department of Agriculture liaison to the Culinary Institute of America (right) introduces A.G. Kawamura, California's agriculture secretary, to a group of chefs, foodservice operators and commodity representatives at Wolfskill Orchard, Winters, Calif.

Despite its battles with land, water, and now the looming citrus greening threat, the future of California agriculture is promising, California state agriculture secretary A.G. Kawamura told a group of chefs, foodservice operators and agriculture industry representatives during a tour of Wolfskill Experimental Orchard, a University of California-Davis-owned orchard on Wolfskill Ranch.

The state’s advantage lies in its predictable weather and its ability to control water, Kawamura said.

“Many of you are in places with predictably unpredictable weather,” Kawamura said. “This climate, where we get to turn the water on and off when we want it, really helps with fruiting crops. Losing that advantage is something we don’t ever want to do.”

The biggest threat facing the state is the presence of Asian citrus psyllids that are the carriers of citrus greening, a disease that is wreaking havoc on the Florida citrus industry and threatens to make its way to California.

“Its entire citrus industry is slowly collapsing,” Kawamura said. “We have the psyllid, but not the disease, in Southern California right now. It’s our biggest concern.”

Kawamura said the state is working to develop a water system to replace the 40-year-old one in place. It was a great system, he said, but the state just outgrew it.

“We have to redirect or reuse the water we’ve got, and there are some tremendous efforts there,” Kawamura said.

The state also needs to protect the farmland it has left, he said.

“When you don’t have a plan for agriculture, you get some of your best land paved over,” Kawamura said, referencing some ideal farmland near his own farm in Orange County that is sitting under developments.

Sustainability, particularly environmental, was also a topic Kawamura put at the top of his list.

He suggested that a fourth “E” of sustainability — education — be added to the three well-known “E”s, economic vitality, equal opportunity and environmental quality. Sustainability is especially important to him, as he inherited essentially dead ground when he started farming in Orange County.

He doesn’t predict more conversions to organic farming necessarily, he said, but rather he predicted conventional farming will continue to become more sustainable.

The threat of unpredictable forces, like climate change and earthquakes, is why the state needs to be prepared, at least, for the predictable ones, he said.

In the midst of the economic recession, Kawamura said it’s a good thing for the California agricultural industry to see people getting excited about food again.

“You go back to the Depression and victory farms, that’s pretty exciting to see that come back into play,” Kawamura said.

For more information on citrus greening, visit The Packer's sister publication The Grower, which has an online Citrus Greening Resource Center.