Mendocino County is in a pickle, or if you don’t like that analogy choose one of your own that reflects the situation in which Ukiah finds itself. Without an Ag Commissioner and in dire need of one. After all, an agricultural county without an ag commissioner is like the world cup without a football. Or if that seems too far-fetched, a deli sandwich without a pickle.
In pioneer days, a California county could function without an ag commissioner, but not in the era of the internet. To play the game, follow the rules and be eligible for certain state and federal funding, Mendocino must have an Ag Commissioner.
Andrew Smith, the Sonoma County Ag Commissioner, has stepped into the breach. On loan from Sonoma, and with an office in Santa Rosa and another in Ukiah, he’s under contract for the next several months. Near the top of his to-do list is to work with the county’s executive office and board of supervisors to find a new Ag Commissioner. He’ll seek help from staff members still at work, eager to save the beleaguered agency and boost morale. Some of the work that Smith will have to do, might be called “damage control.”
In a phone interview with me he said that he wanted to “obliterate past stigmas, and improve the narrative.”
From Smith’s vantage point, “There isn’t a problem, but rather an opportunity for a Renaissance and for positive change.” He also said that while the job would be stressful, it would be worthwhile for him personally as well as for the whole county. “No pain no gain,” he might have said.
Smith didn’t name names, accuse anyone of muddying the waters or creating havoc, but he did say that he would not describe the situation “as a dumpster fire,” as some have called it. No doubt cynics would not want Mendocino to rise from its ashes and be reborn as a vital agricultural county.
I’ve been in and around Mendo long enough to encounter the nay-sayers and their ilk. They’ll spin any story until it turns black.
Like Mr. Jefferson Smith—played by Jimmy Stewart in the 1939 upbeat Roosevelt-era movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—Andrew Smith is an optimist and the can-do kind of civil servant increasingly hard to find these days. I know that from 30 years of experience in the California State University system. If there’s an issue, too many individuals will simply walk away from it. Not Andrew Smith, who has already rolled up his shirt sleeves and gone to work. He told me he wants to maintain the sense of teamwork that still exists in the office, amplify the morale and rebuild the foundation. That won’t be a slam dunk.
Once upon a time, there was stability in the office, though long ago, Ted Erickson kicked up dust when he included marijuana in the annual crop report in 1979. $90 million was his estimate. Tony Linegar performed exceedingly well during his tenure until he moved to Sonoma County. Before Linegar there was Dave Barkson, and after Linegar there was Chuck Morse who came up through the ranks but didn’t last as long as Linegar or provide much needed continuity and structure.
Ever since Morse retired, the turn-over has been dramatic, to say the least. Diane Curry followed Morse out of the ag office and then in rapid succession, Harinder Grewal and Jim Donnelly followed her. Whatever the reasons for the turn-overs, it hasn’t looked good or boded well. Staff have been worn down by the turnover and the lack of direction. Smith tells me they’ve wondered “Who’s steering the ship?”
The Ag Commissioner is a demanding job. The qualifications are stiff and the responsibilities diverse and far ranging. There isn’t a large pool of qualified applicants and some counties, say Santa Barbara, seem more attractive than others. The position encompasses weights and measures; verifying the accuracy of the pumps at gas stations and ensuring consumers get what they pay for. Then there’s compliance with the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides, and the safety of both applicators and fieldworkers. Fortunately for a new ag commissioner, cannabis is now in its own separate agency.
Still, it will continue to be the elephant in the room and a headache for anyone aiming to corral cannabis cultivation in the county. It's a slippery subject. Smith told me he wanted to figure out how much marijuana is actually cultivated and harvested in Mendocino. Without reliable data it’s difficult to ascertain the monetary value of the crop or to estimate how much money cannabis brings into the county, and how much tax revenue is lost to the underground economy.
After I interviewed Smith I interviewed Devon Boer, the executive director of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau, a non-profit and not directly connected to the county or the office of the Ag Commissioner. Boer is modest about her own knowledge and information, but she’s as informed about ag in the county as anyone I have met and know, including Linegar. Boer told me she didn’t think that the cannabis picture would improve greatly until and unless the feds legalize it. That won’t happen anytime soon, no matter what legalization advocates insist.
“Andrew can’t work miracles,” Boer told me. “But his perspective is beneficial.” Crucial to Smith’s perspective is that Mendocino and Sonoma are sister counties and ought to be sisterly with one another. As Boer pointed out, Sonoma and Mendocino have a lot in common, including a border, plus concerns about pest control, the Russian River which runs through both counties, plus weather, drought and climate change.
What affects Sonoma affects Mendocino and visa-a-vis. One can’t really thrive unless the other really thrives. Mr. Andrew Smith, who believes that both counties should and could thrive, has come to Ukiah, much as Mr. Jefferson Smith went to Washington, to get a difficult job done, and not hog the credit, but spread it around.