Quick Take:

“It’s been a tough year,” David Sanford says of 2023 for Santa Cruz County farmers and farmworkers. Sanford, who took over as county agricultural commissioner earlier this from Juan Hidalgo, talks about how local growers are tackling the variety of issues stemming from climate change, the effects of inflation and more in a Q&A with Jessica M. Pasko.

From harvest delays of up to six weeks and millions of dollars in estimated losses, the January and March flooding events continue to have a devastating impact on the Santa Cruz County agricultural community. By some estimates, those losses could be up to $65 million — including not just damaged crops, but lesser yields and time and energy spent on reconditioning fields.

A Q&A with Santa Cruz County agricultural commissioner David Sanford

That’s on top of the significant impacts the growing community was already feeling from the COVID-19 pandemic and new challenges posed by climate change — from wildfires to drought, pests and rising temperatures. While the recently released 2022 crop report showed modest gains across much of the local industry, that didn’t include the economic impact of this past winter’s storms. Being a farmer in California in 2023 is not for the faint of the heart; it is a constant struggle to grapple with rising costs, a dwindling workforce and extreme weather conditions.

To learn more about how our agricultural community is grappling with the ongoing challenges and changes it faces, I spoke with David Sanford, who took over the reins from Juan Hidalgo as the county’s agricultural commissioner earlier this year. He’d served as deputy agricultural commissioner for the department since 2016. The agency is responsible for activities including pest management, pesticide enforcement, weights and measures, and it oversees programs such as farmers markets and the annual crop report. It also works with other stakeholders throughout the local agricultural community.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lookout: To start broadly, how would you assess the health level of our agriculture community currently following the severe winter storms?

David Sanford: This year’s storms had a major impact. It really slowed down their operations, caused a lot of flooding and erosion. The recently released crop report for 2022 showed it to be a pretty good year, but the one for 2023 is going to be quite different. I’ve had to submit economic impact reports to federal and state agencies, and so far estimates put the direct and indirect losses attributed to the January and March flooding events at $60 to $65 million. That’s just a ballpark figure. It’s hard to say really until the season is over. But what I’m hearing from growers is that the delays have just been enormous. I spoke with one strawberry grower who told me he’s been six weeks behind the entire season. And what that does is create an ongoing catch-up and loss situation. It’s been a struggle, and that’s not to mention the physical damages that people have had to recondition. It’s been a tough year.

David Sanford, Santa Cruz County agricultural commissioner
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Lookout: What are you seeing as the biggest challenges our local growers face as we look ahead?

Sanford: With inflation, our growers have seen the costs of everything go up — including fertilizers and plants themselves. The cost of labor and availability of labor is a top issue for our growers. Availability is a major problem today.

And of course, it seems like it’s climate chaos these days. It’s either we’re in a drought or we’re dealing with floods. The silver lining of these storm events is that it recharged aquifers to a limited extent, but I think it will take some time to see how much those really benefited. Going forward, this is going to be something that our growers are constantly dealing with — the availability and cost of water.

They’re also trying to keep up with new and changing regulations at all levels. Other major problems include how much they can get for crops at market — the volatility of the markets is always tough, and now we have more competition from outside sources for commodities like berries because there is more international production now. It’s a tough climate for our growers, there’s a lot of costs and they have to break even to make a profit.

Lookout: Previously you mentioned some of the impacts of climate change. Regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum, it’s hard to deny that things are changing. How much of a concern is this for the agricultural community locally and how do you see it playing out?

Sanford: When it comes to climate change, I think it’s on everybody’s minds. If you’re a grower dealing with what has been the seasonal trends here, you are starting to see changes. Over time, we’re seeing the impacts on the crops we have here. We have a fantastic climate for strawberries and berries in general, it’s a phenomenal growing region, which will most likely stay in place for quite a while, but we are starting to see changes even with things like maritime trends like how much fog we should have.

Another thing we may see is an increased number of new pests as things warm up or pests that weren’t showing up here in the north that start to do so. I think those are kind of the inevitable results of the changing climate and a real cause for concern.

Where I have some real hope is that the California Department of Food and Agriculture has climate change very much on their radar. It’s not some ethereal thing; it’s happening. We’ve got an increased number of fruit flies throughout the state and then you’re looking at the next headline that says this is the hottest summer on record. You can draw a parallel there. I mean, we’re seeing more tropical fruit flies where we didn’t before. It’s worrisome.

Lookout: As you look ahead to the next three to six months, and the next year, what are your major goals in your new role?

Sanford: Our job at the commissioner’s office is to not only promote and protect agriculture here locally, but also to protect the environment and the people — our citizens — who live in the county. That’s my goal. But I think on a basic level, here in our department it’s been a rebuilding effort. We’ve had a lot of turnover, just like anywhere in the economy. A lot of our highly trained staff and inspectors who have been here for years have retired and left and we’ve had to solve for that. We’ve done some rebuilding.

I recently hired another manager who is going to be assisting heavily with our pesticide use enforcement programs, really focusing on our programs and our outreach to growers. We’re also prioritizing our outreach to growers and to the fieldworker community. We’re getting training set up to more specifically reach fieldworkers rather than just supervisors. We’re hoping to do that in later winter, early spring and keep the outreach going, to make sure people feel like they can come to us with questions about regulatory enforcement and where we can help. [Lookout: As a regulatory agency, the agricultural commissioner doesn’t set pesticide use policy, but is tasked with enforcing existing policies set forth by the state.]

It’s kind of an amazing agriculture situation here in Santa Cruz County, with a lot of small growers and people who are doing direct marketing via farmers markets, farm stands, etc. It’s an amazing county to work within agriculture.

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Jessica M. Pasko has been writing professionally for almost two decades.She cut her teeth in journalism as a reporter for the Associated Press in her native Albany, NY, where she covered everything from...