Ag Commissioner Explains Her Mission

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Monica Nielsen, Mariposa County’s Agricultural Commissioner, spoke with MariposaToday.com on the importance of her department’s work and her ongoing duty to educate, advocate and promote agriculture in her community.

As a member of the California Agricultural Commissioners and Sealers Association, Nielsen is one of 56 agricultural commissioners in the state. Originally, when California was growing, her position was responsible for inspecting plants and other commodities for invasive pests as they entered the state. In the present, her responsibilities have grown dramatically.

“The Central Valley supplies eight percent of U.S. agricultural output (by value) and produces a quarter of the nation’s food, including 40 percent of the nation’s fruits, nuts and other table foods,” Nielsen stated during the interview. Due to California’s Mediterranean style climate, almost any type of crop can be grown. Considering California’s large size compared to other states and the yield of the crops being grown, the California Department of Food and Agriculture licenses each county to protect their agricultural products, which is why the work that Nielsen and her co-workers do is important.

Nielsen’s mission statement as Agricultural Commissioner is to “protect the consumer, maintain quality standards, promote California agriculture, and enforce responsible pesticide use.” However, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to her many responsibilities. One example she mentioned was her department’s involvement in pest detection, management, exclusion, and eradication.

She expressed her concern about pesticide spray products used by homeowners (non-professionals) and the importance of personal protective equipment that homeowners should wear, which are required by law. Homeowners should, but usually do not, useprotective eyewear, chemical resistant gloves, long sleeve shirts, long pants and shoes and socks. “You’re supposed to wear these five things, however sometimes it does not state it on the label, so we see people walking and spraying with shorts on.” Part of Nielsen’s job is to spread this kind of knowledge to the community so there are less harmful accidents to both the environment and people themselves.

Nielsen and her team work with agricultural producers in the county to educate and enforce laws that pertain to them. “For producers that use pesticides, we issue operator IDs and we go over laws and regulations every year to reiterate that these are the laws and the regulations that you have to follow.”

This includes any producer that sells at a farmers’ market. “As an example, we go and do random spot samples on organic products and we send them to the CDFA lab to make sure they don’t have synthetic pesticides on them because that’s a big no-no. Organic is allowed to use all-natural pesticides, but they are not allowed to use synthetic pesticides,” explained Nielsen.

Another major responsibility of Nielsen’s that affects the public is her department’s authority on weights and measures. “We test the scales at the markets. We test the fuel meters (gas pumps) in the county. If you have a complaint that you think you were cheated on gas, or the gasoline did something bad to your car, you can call our number, and then we can file a complaint and we will do an investigation on it,” Nielsen noted.

Weights and measures also provides checks and balances on cord wood, one of Mariposa’s popular resources. Nielsen mentioned her ability to work with the district attorney’s office to uphold these laws. For example, she explained, “We’ve had a couple of complaints this year. We go out, we’ll measure [the wood], we’ll get a hold of the vendor and say, ‘Hey, you shortchanged this person. Are you going to make it right? [If not] here’s your other option. I write you a violation notice and then a fine can come along with this.’ Or if it’s intentional and we can show intent. We’ll work with the district attorney and let the district attorney file charges.”

“With anything that’s weights and measures, we have the option to work with the district attorney,” Nielsen explained. Most Weights and Measures violations can be submitted to the DA for them to file charges on. Nielsen also included that most cases that involve cord wood have to do with the legal amount that a vendor can sell. For instance, she said, “people think ‘oh, I can sell by the truckload.’ You cannot by law; you cannot sell a truckload of wood. It has to be sold by a cord or a portion of a cord. And when it gets down to the little boxes or bundles, they have to be sold by cubic foot.”

While on the surface it might seem like Nielsen’s position requires her to be harsh on the agricultural producers in the county. She was very clear that her main goal is to simply teach compliance to the laws and regulations. “We’re going to work with you. We’re going to get you to become compliant. If you’re following the regulations, when we’re doing an inspection, and there is a minor violation that will not hurt any people or environment, let’s fix it and we’ll come back and redo the inspection.”

Nielsen acknowledged how much different Mariposa County is when it comes to promoting and supporting the agricultural community. Nielsen said, “I’ve been lucky that up here that we don’t have those intentional people who want to violate the law. We have people up here who really want to follow the regulations and be compliant.”

Nielsen said she has really found a place where she can grow personally and professionally as Mariposa’s agriculture department continues its trajectory of rapid growth. “I go to meetings and I’m thankful every day that I’m here. Here, the community supports agriculture. It’s a really good working environment up here where everybody gets along.”

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