What is the Ag Ombudsman, anyway?
Since taking on the role of Agricultural Ombudsman for Marin County, I have heard the same question over and over: “What the heck is the Ag Ombudsman?”
Well, I am so glad you asked.
The Ag Ombudsman is a role that is seen increasingly in counties around the region, including Sonoma, Solano, San Mateo and Yolo counties. Marin was the first so it’s fair to say that we started the trend! The Ag Ombudsman is often (though not always) associated with the county’s Cooperative Extension Office, which means that their task is fundamentally to be a source of information for farmers and ranchers. The County created the position to promote the diversification of agriculture and support producers as they set out to build, expand or modify their operations for long-term success.
In particular, I aim to be a one-stop-shop for information on the many county, state and federal regulations that apply to commercial agriculture and, when appropriate, help producers to navigate the permitting or licensing process necessary to move their operation forward. I don’t pretend to know all the answers, so often my work involves consulting with folks within the appropriate regulatory agencies and sometimes referring farmers or ranchers on to someone else. That said, I am in the unique position of having no enforcement responsibilities, which means that I can be a safe, neutral person to explore ideas with and help producers understand the laws in order to make their own decisions about their operation. This kind of information can be very helpful whether a farmer or rancher wants to dig an irrigation pond, start a value-added business, build a new barn, or sell eggs at the farmers market.
Sometimes I work in response to a single producer’s question. I field calls and emails from lots of folks and in response to each, I compile the necessary information to give them complete, easy to understand answers. Sometimes my work is much broader. Where there seem to be a lot of questions or potential for many producers to benefit, I create factsheets for wide distribution or contribute content to public workshops. Regardless of whether I’m working one-on-one with a rancher or putting up information for all to see, my priority is always to bring clarity and diplomacy to the complicated stew of rules and procedures that can divide farmers from regulators.
Additionally, I am sometimes called on to provide input for new rules being drafted by public agencies. Knowing the challenges of farming commercially in the county, I can bring some perspective to the table and help ensure that the producer’s voice is being heard.
So why me? I am being very sincere when I say that I feel extremely lucky to play this part for the producers of our county. My predecessor, Lisa Bush, was much loved by farmers and ranchers who have worked with her over the years, and I hope that many years from now, someone will say the same about me. I come from a farming family with uncles, aunts and cousins who make up the 5th generation of a ranch that raises crops and cattle on more than 15,000 acres in northern Idaho. My personal agricultural experience, though, is on a much smaller scale, having spent the last six years working with micro-dairies, fruit and vegetable CSAs and commercial egg operations on small farms around northern California. My wife and I are in our second season on our own farm, and 2016 marks my third year supervising the production crew at Santa Rosa Junior College’s Shone Farm. I also have a long history outside of agriculture helping people make sense of complicated topics. I started out teaching English as a second language (a useful experience since sometimes food and ag rules read like a foreign language, too!) Later, I moved to Kaiser Permanente where I provided training and facilitation for departments around Northern California, helping them build productive work teams and overcome the history of conflict between unionized staff and non-union managers.
Since taking on the role of Ag Ombudsman, I have fielded questions on egg carton labeling, olive oil bottling, grain milling, poultry slaughter and pole barns. I recently put together a factsheet called “Getting Started Selling at Farmers Markets” and hope to soon publish one on registering ponds for livestock and irrigation. My question to all of you is this:
What do YOU need to know to take the next step for your farm or ranch?
What project are you considering or what aspect of your operation deserves a factsheet here at growninmarin.org? Send your ideas to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and please reach out to me any time with questions - that’s why I’m here!