They’ve been called California agriculture’s “power couple” because of the positions they held among the nation’s Top 3 farm counties. As the only married couple among county agricultural commissioners, Les and Marilyn Wright are retiring from their respective roles in Fresno and Tulare counties.
Les retired from his position as agricultural commissioner for Fresno County Jan. 25, while Marilyn will stick around as the Tulare County agricultural commissioner until March 29. She has been the county’s top ag regulator nine years; Les became Fresno’s ag commissioner in early 2013.
Melissa Cregan, who most recently served as assistant commissioner in the Fresno County Department of Agriculture, will serve as interim ag commissioner for that county until a permanent replacement can be named. Tulare County has not yet announced a successor for its commissioner.
County agricultural commissioners and sealers of weights and measures in California are the local regulators who oversee a host of activities that are not always related directly to agriculture. In farming communities, they can also serve as the chief promotors of agriculture among government leaders; they are required by law to report gross farm receipts each year to the state Department of Food and Agriculture and their local boards of supervisors.
The Wrights presided over their respective agriculture departments as drought turned the tables on gross values across California. As far back as many recall, Fresno County led the pack as the of counties by gross agricultural value. A few times over the years Tulare County would best Fresno, if milk prices were high enough. That region remains the largest milk producing county by volume in the United States.
THOUSANDS OF ACRES FALLOWED
As drought took hold after 2010, thousands of acres of farmland across the state, including much of western Fresno County, were fallowed, largely because state and federal regulators significantly cut back, and in some cases curtailed, surface irrigation supplies.
This cost Fresno County agriculture at least $1 billion in gross receipts, and quickly plunged the county into second-place behind Tulare County when a fortuitous spike in milk prices pushed Tulare’s total gross ag value to over $8 billion, a full $1 billion ahead of Fresno County.
In previous good water years, Fresno typically out-produced Tulare County by a similar figure.
Since 2016, Kern County has held the honors as the leading farm county in the nation in gross sales from the farm, a shift Marilyn says was “bound to happen” as farmers there continued to plant high-value crops such as almonds, pistachios, and table grapes. “The newspapers always call it ‘the battle’ between Fresno and Tulare,” she says, reflecting on the annual crop report announcements, which typically take place in August.
In a perfect world, where surface irrigation water supplies were not significantly cut by state and federal governments, Marilyn believes Fresno’s dominance in agricultural production would never have been bested, even with the move to high-value crops, because Kern County growers are not the only ones transitioning to high-value crops. “Fresno has so much good, flat farmland it can use if they only had the water,” she says.
It became difficult over the past decade to find just one of the two ag commissioners at local industry meetings. Though much of Marilyn’s career is tied to various positions with the Tulare County Department of Agriculture, it can be traced back to the late 1980s as a pest detection trapper in Merced County, Calif. In 1993, she was hired by Tulare County, and has worked in various positions there ever since.
Les followed in his father’s footsteps; both served as commissioner for the Modoc County Department of Agriculture. Les’ career also took him to California’s southernmost border county, Imperial, as ag commissioner.
Les got his start in the summer of 1973, working at the state’s agricultural inspection station just north of the Modoc County city of Alturas. Later, he became a fulltime agricultural inspector in neighboring Lassen County, and then in nearby Siskiyou County before heading south to work in San Joaquin and Imperial counties. By 2006, he was a deputy ag commissioner in the Kings County Department of Agriculture.
That was about the same time that Les and Marilyn met. She was a deputy commissioner in the neighboring Tulare County ag commissioner’s office. She jokes that he accused her of ignoring him the first time they met at a conference, but explains that she was at the location to take a licensing exam and had other things on her mind. They were married a year ago on the Central Coast. “How that happened a year ago already just floors me,” she says, marveling at how quickly time passes.
Both have witnessed an onslaught of regulatory burdens placed on California growers by regulators and the state legislature. Many of those issues are ultimately handled by county agriculture departments, sometimes putting commissioners at odds with local farmers.
While both defend their actions as “part of our jobs,” they also have worked hard to promote agriculture to elected leaders in their communities — namely their boards of supervisors, who regularly make land use decisions that can impact farmers. Recent passage of a law that established buffer zones for pesticide applications around public schools and day care centers is one of many regulations county offices must monitor and regulate, though part of this compliance rests with the schools, which Marilyn says were not eager or willing to do their part.
The schools were given unique usernames and login passwords by the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) to access a state website where they would then print from the electronic notices farmers are required to provide. But, only about 20 percent of schools in the ag zones bothered to initially access the website and provide necessary information to accept electronic grower notifications, she says.
“Someone from one of the schools called me and said their board members are growers — that they don’t have a problem, and didn’t want to do this. I had to tell them ‘I’m sorry, you have to do this, It’s state law.’ The state is saying that they must use their user name and login to complete their duties so we can do our regulatory duties.”
“The school administrators asked me why they had to take all these notices when they didn’t have a problem,” Les says. “A lot of times our legislature has a knee-jerk reaction to an incident, but in this case, there were no incidents behind the school notification or any science to support the decision. It was all politically driven. We’re seeing it now with chlorpyrifos. DPR is becoming an activist group instead of a science-based agency.”
Both were also in their respective positions when the Asian citrus psyllid (ACP) began to be discovered in the two counties. The discovery of a breeding population of ACP in small citrus trees in a Dinuba neighborhood moved the issue to the forefront in both counties as state regulators began stepping up their trapping efforts and discussions with the citrus industry began to look at ways to slow the spread of the insect responsible for spreading Huanglongbing (HLB) disease, which to date has been found in over 1,000 residential trees in southern California.
“What should be scary — and it’s frightening the citrus industry — is that they’ve got HLB in Riverside and the state’s main citrus research facility is within the quarantine zone down there.”
Both agree more needs to be done to protect the state from losing its citrus industry to HLB, but because there exists at least as many citrus trees in residential yards in the state as there are in commercial groves, Les says protecting the industry is difficult. “Enforcing quarantines on these residents is virtually impossible,” he says.
PROTECTION FOR BEES
Bee issues have also bugged commissioners because the apiary industry was largely non-compliant with rules asking them to notify counties about bee placements and marking their hives for identification in the case of theft.
Marilyn thinks a new law that puts some regulatory “teeth” in the matter could help protect bees from pesticide sprays that have been in the news.
“Compliance among beekeepers has been horrible,” she says. “We survey for two weeks to three week, with multiple inspectors, and we might have 20 percent of the beekeepers tell us where their hives are. We pin these locations, so we can go back and tell them where pesticide applications are going to take place. You would think they would want us to have that information, but they don’t.”
The new law, which starts employing fines for non-compliance in 2020, also requires beekeepers to provide clean water and a food source for bees to keep them from flying great distances in search of food.
Les illustrated an incident where his office investigated a bee kill from a pesticide application. The investigation revealed that a bee broker was dropping off hives in non-blooming orchards without any fresh water or feed supplements. “Those bees were traveling two miles to find nectarine blossoms to feed on. The orchards were sprayed, yet there was no violation because they were supposed to feed and water those bees at the location and not force them to fly two miles to find food.”
The couple is in the process of moving to northwest Nebraska, where they’ve already purchased property and have begun construction on a shop and home. For Marilyn, this means returning to her home state, where she still has relatives. For Les it means more time for hunting and helping neighbors.
The two were recently honored by friends and industry representatives at a retirement dinner at Clovis, Calif. Mark Thompson, president of the Fresno-Kings County Cattlemen’s Association, says Les has been eager to assist with activities at the Big Fresno Fair and elsewhere in the community. “He’s so civic-minded — he’s been a big help over the years,” Thompson says.
“Our local ag commissioners do more than most secretaries of agriculture in other states,” says Ryan Jacobsen, manager of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. “They work hard to promote and protect the industry.”
Both Les and Marilyn were praised by Jean Rousseau, chief administrative officer in Fresno County. Rousseau once held the same position in neighboring Tulare County, and as such was the direct supervisor for Marilyn, before becoming Les’ supervisor when he took the position in Fresno County.