Wendy Sims-Moten: Many parents and early care and education professionals have questions about pesticides, organic food benefits, and the impact of marijuana legalization on children and families. All of these questions led us to Cathy Fisher, the Santa Barbara County agricultural commissioner and director of Weights & Measures. I’ve been so impressed with your work promoting safer use of pesticides in our county. Tell us about last week’s Spray Safe event.

Cathy Fisher: The Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau held its third Spray Safe event Feb. 20, providing free training dedicated to educating Santa Barbara growers, employees, supervisors, pest control advisers and applicators about safe spraying practices. Spray Safe is a free intensive training program that focuses on the prevention of pesticide-exposure incidents. The mission of Spray Safe is to encourage the safe application of agricultural pest control products through education and farmer-to-farmer communication and cooperation.

It has been an excellent opportunity to improve communication among growers, applicators and farm employees. There were live demonstrations in English and Spanish on the topics of field worker safety, equipment calibration and maintenance, laws and regulations, and more. The Feb. 20 program also featured educational presentations, vendor displays and a free burrito breakfast. The Santa Barbara County Agricultural Department staff provided presentations on pesticide laws and regulations.

WSM: How are you working to balance the need to use pesticides and threats to child development?

CF: The Department of Pesticide Regulation is vested with primary authority through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to enforce federal and state laws pertaining to the proper and safe use of pesticides in California. DPR’s enforcement of pesticide use in the field is largely carried out in California’s 58 counties by County Agricultural Commissions. DPR personnel provide training, coordination, technical and legal support to the counties. CACs seek compliance through education, including presentations to community and industry groups, training sessions for pesticide users, informal or formal compliance actions, and corrective interviews.

When an enforcement action is needed, the CAC has various options. This includes revoking or suspending the right of a pest control company to do business in the county, prohibiting harvest of a crop that contains illegal residues and issuing civil and criminal penalties. The objective of California’s pesticide enforcement program is to protect the public, environment and farm labor from pesticide exposure. Among our most important responsibilities is investigating pesticide illnesses and injuries.

Cathy Fisher

Cathy Fisher

WSM: What happens when there are reports of pesticide concerns?

CF: All reported pesticide-related illnesses and injuries are investigated by the CAC in the county where they occurred. Our biologists interview the victims, and if the illness occurred at work, the employer. If the law was broken and people made ill, we take enforcement action.

CAC duties range far beyond the farm gate. For example, CAC biologists check maintenance gardeners to ensure they are licensed to apply pesticides, and that their pesticides are labeled for professional landscaping. CAC biologists inspect home pesticide applications, such as structural fumigations for termites, and check structural pest control employees for proper training and equipment. Since many pesticides are used in nonagricultural settings — sanitizers in municipal water treatment plants, and disinfecting chemicals in food service facilities and hospitals — pesticide laws may overlap other areas where workplace safety is involved. Therefore, CACs may also work with the state departments of Industrial Relations and Health Care Services. Commissioners also consult with the state Department of Forestry and its federal counterpart about pesticide use on forestlands.

WSM: What is an example of a recent action your department has taken to protect children and families?

CF: We work to connect systems and identify and address potential dangers. Recently, our department collaborated with the county Public Health department with circulating a “Health Alert” letter to all medical providers in the county informing them about the requirement for medical professionals to report all pesticide-related illnesses to the state Public Health Department, which are eventually forwarded to county agricultural commissioners to investigate.

Another example includes an Environmental Justice DPR Pesticide Enforcement workshop we hosted in Santa Maria in 2017. The workshop is intended to strengthen partnerships with the community by providing attendees a working knowledge of pesticide use enforcement, reporting and worker safety. The workshops are designed to provide attendees with a better understanding of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation’s Enforcement Program and the services it provides to county agricultural commissioners as well as the services to the local community provided by the county agricultural commissioner.

WSM: Many parents have questions about or want to incorporate more organic food into their children’s diets. Do you have anything to share with parents about organic efforts in Santa Barbara County?

CF: We are seeing an increase every year of conventional acres transitioning to organic farming. This is due to the public demanding more organically grown produce. We recently created a new Integrated Pest Management Specialist position to educate growers on what their pest control options are for organic farming. We also host a variety of workshops throughout the year to inform growers on the latest organic pest control options. Our IPMS also circulates a quarterly IPM Bulletin. We will be hosting an Organic Seminar Series for growers and potential growers.

WSM: While the research is still developing, there is strong evidence that cannabis use affects fetal brain development. Santa Barbara County has had a large increase in growers. Do you play a role in controlling this growth?

CF: The CalCannabis Division within the California Department of Food and Agriculture is the licensing and enforcement authority for cannabis cultivation. Our department is currently participating with an enforcement pilot program with the CalCannabis enforcement branch to test site inspection procedures for cannabis cultivators. We are beginning our second year and will be completing second site inspections for cultivators in the county.

All of the information and documents we collect are submitted to CalCannabis enforcement staff and will be used to determine whether the cultivator will be getting a state annual license. We also are responsible with completing site inspections with the county’s cannabis business license program to ensure cultivators meet local requirements and whether they will be issued a county cannabis business license.

WSM: What is your biggest challenge and why?

CF: There are several key challenges and emerging issues that we are currently dealing with or will be dealing with in the near future. Examples are regulating the cannabis industry, regulating industrial hemp cultivation, employee retention, new programs/projects, continued Ag-Urban interface conflicts, conflicts between agriculture and cannabis cultivation, natural disasters, new emerging technology, new pest introductions and necessary capital improvement projects.

WSM: What is something people would find surprising about your work?

CF: Many people do not know California is the only state in the country that has individual county agricultural commissioners. The other states only have a state department of agriculture. The state legislature passed a law in 1883 that requires each county Board of Supervisors to appoint their own county agricultural commissioner to protect the state’s agricultural industry from invasive pests because agriculture was the No. 1 contributor to the state’s economy.

In Santa Barbara County, the agricultural industry is the No. 1 contributor to the county’s economy. We recently completed an economic analysis report and found agriculture contributes $2.8 billion every year and provides 25,370 jobs.

Another surprise that many do not know is that county agricultural commissioners are also known as sealers of Weights & Measures. We are required by law to inspect every device in the county that are used for commercial purposes. We ensure through our inspections that consumers get what they pay for and establish an equitable marketplace for businesses.

WSM: We’re glad you’re here in Santa Barbara County. You’ve led us through a difficult year for us, both in terms of human and agricultural losses. How did last year’s fires and mudslides affect our county’s agriculture?

CF: The agricultural commodities impacted by the Thomas Fire were cherimoyas, nursery products, avocados, cut flowers and vegetable crops with a loss of $11,737,961. Thirty-nine farms were impacted. The same commodities and farms were impacted by the Jan. 9, 2018, debris flow and totaled an additional $6,157,197 of losses. These disasters had a huge impact on our economy, but I’m inspired by the resiliency of the sector as we move into a new year.

WSM: Where did you attend kindergarten?

CF: DeVargas Elementary School in San Jose. I loved drawing and playing four-square.

— Wendy Sims-Moten is executive director of First 5 Santa Barbara County. Click here for additional columns. The opinions expressed are her own.