On The Fence, Building Bridges
New ag commish is congenial, cautious--and a coalition-builder.
Thursday, July 2, 1998
You don''t get to get to be the point-man for a $2.2 billion industry without being a political animal and Eric Lauritzen, Monterey County''s newly appointed agricultural commissioner is no exception.
Selected by county officials from a pool of applicants to replace Richard Nutter, the 26-year veteran who leaves his post this week, Lauritzen--Sonoma County''s ag commissioner for the past nine years--approaches everything from interview questions to community issues with the skill and caution of a consummate diplomat.
Ask him where he stands on extending the ban on the fumigant methyl bromide (due to go into effect in California in December), try to find out his views on the conversion of agricultural land, see if you can get him to tell you whether he''ll tell his staff to blow the whistle on substandard farmworker housing and you''ll get the same polite-but-definitive no-answer response.
"I don''t get the luxury of imposing my personal views on enforcing the laws," says Lauritzen, who will begin his new job on July 25.
"I am going to be very careful about crossing the line between regulation and politics."
And yet, there are plenty of folks who believe the role of ag commissioner in some ways demands just that. On the one hand, ag commissioners, by statute, are required to promote and protect agriculture. On the other hand, they''re the local office charged with protecting the general public from industry excesses--particularly with regard to the use of pesticides.
"When promoting and protecting agriculture gets to be the same thing as promoting and protecting pesticides, we''re way off course," says Patty Clary, executive director of Californians for Alternatives to Toxics (CATS), a Northern California group that has tangled with Lauritzen over access to pesticide application records.
"I think the key challenge of that office are the dual responsibilities of promoting first and foremost the interests of agriculture--which in this area generally means agribusiness--and being charged with enforcement of laws designed to protect the public and farmworkers from toxic chemicals," says Bill Monning, one of the co-founders of the Central Coast Pesticide Coalition.
"Sometimes, it''s a real balancing act," admits Lauritzen, who nonetheless mentions several examples of what he sees as successful coalition-building in his nine-year tenure in Sonoma County.
Lauritzen says he successfully resolved a controversial plan to deter predatory coyotes--an issue of great concern to sheep farmers--by means of poisoned collars deployed on sacrificial lambs in Sonoma County fields. The idea behind the plan was to specifically target coyotes who were killing livestock, although Lauritzen says Sonoma County environmentalists were "concerned, naturally, about secondary poisoning," while animal rights activists were opposed altogether to the idea of killing coyotes. "I went out and did a little speaking tour, and met with key individuals and groups, and it became clear this was superior to other methods," says Lauritzen. As for the animal rights groups, "we came to an agreement that there would be a disagreement." But, adds Lauritzen, "there was nobody, including the people who picketed outside my office, who didn''t feel that I didn''t give them a chance to be heard."
Lauritzen''s office was criticized last year for refusing to pin the blame for a sulfur spill in the Russian River on a particular grower, despite the fact that the North County Water Quality Control Board had identified a particular ranch as a source of the spill. Sulfur, which is not considered a hazardous material, is used routinely in vineyards to control mildew. Lauritzen''s office at the time refused to cite ranch owners for the spill, saying the origin of the mishap was "inconclusive"--a verdict he stands by today. "Our office couldn''t prove that it came from that specific grower, and that ultimately is what we''re charged with--not making a grower look bad, or [deciding] by a preponderance of evidence to infer that something happened when it didn''t."
Richard Mounts, president of Sonoma County''s Farm Bureau, says Lauritzen''s response to the 1997 sulfur spill was in keeping with a philosophy heavy on coalition-building and light on hand-slapping. "That was an example of something he handled real well," says Mounts. "He got all the parties who were involved and they all sat down. It was pretty hard to prove where it [the sulfur] came from, and the response really was an educational program to educate farmers of river frontage to be more careful."
Asked to describe Lauritzen''s strengths, Mounts mentions the commissioner''s willingness to interact with people within and without the agricultural community and his "ability to bring divergent people together to talk over issues and not interject his own beliefs.
"He tries to look at both sides of everything." says Mounts. "Here, there were some who accused him of siding with the environmental community."
But--perhaps as a tribute to Lauritzen''s political dexterity--the outgoing commissioner also hasn''t been as green as some Sonoma County environmentalists would have liked.
"I think he''s made attempts to court the environmental community," says Patricia Dines, a local environmentalist who has worked with Lauritzen''s office. "He''s not horrible, but he''s not as proactive as we would like. I think that''s partly because of the limitations of the pesticide regulation system." Specifically, Dines says Lauritzen''s office "is not as proactive about going after violators as conditions warrant." She adds that "citizens complaining about [pesticide] drift are not getting much tangible action" from the ag commissioner''s office "to change the situation."
Still Lauritzen''s willingness to sit down and discuss concerns about pesticides, his willingness to be quoted at public meetings describing the fumigant methyl bromide as "extremely toxic material," may well be seen in an encouraging light by Monterey County environmentalists.
Nutter, who served as the county''s ag commissioner during decades of profound industry change that have included the encroachment of urban development on ag lands and increased public awareness about pesticide safety, has in recent years tangled with environmentalists in several very public battles. Specifically, the commission was cited this year by a Monterey County Superior Court judge for overcharging for research fees for records on pesticide applications.
Based at least partly on that case, Clary says CATS may also issue a legal challenge against the Sonoma County Ag Commissioner''s office for what she says has been Lauritzen''s refusal to provide information on pemits issued for the application of restricted materials.
The Monterey County Ag Commissioner has also been publicly challenged by the consumer group Farm Without Harm for allowing application of the fumigant methyl bromide near Rivella Drive in Castroville. The county''s permitting of the application was upheld by the state''s Department of Pesticide Regulation, although buffer zones around the field were increased and the amount of methyl bromide to be applied was decreased.
The differences between Nutter--an old-style agriculturist well-regarded by industry--and Lauritzen--the coalition-builder 30 years his junior--may be as simple as the difference between the ag industry of yesteryear and today.
Pressured by urban encroachment, challenged by new regulations, and spurred by new awareness of issues like food and water safety, ag as an industry is no longer an island and its point-man must, by definition, build bridges to the rest of the community. Lauritzen says he''s eager to hit the ground, learn the terrain and plunge into leading an ag industry that is one of the state''s leaders.
"It [Monterey County] drives a lot of the laws and regulations. It drives policy. To be able to be in the position to impact change and to be a part of that drive--as opposed to responding to it--is a new opportunity. There''s a lot more I would like to do."