A Calamitous Time to Lose Ag Experts

With Citrus Psyllid Threat, County Needs Plant and Pest Scientists

I am greatly concerned by the decisions that have been and are being made by County Agriculture Commissioner Cathy Fisher (“Nasty Bug Appears as County Slashes Top Pest, Plant Jobs) which are likely to take Santa Barbara down the road to unfortunate and deleterious consequences. The commissioner’s personnel decisions to downgrade, if not eliminate, her department’s science department are particularly short-sighted, if not calamitous, coming as they do with the discovery of the Asian citrus psyllid in Santa Barbara — a bug that can carry a bacteria that causes huanglongbing, or HLB, a fatal disease that could wipe out our citrus industry, much as it has in Florida.

This is a matter of great concern to our agriculture industry but also to all our residents and to the environmental health of our community. The minor budgetary gains from Commissioner Fisher’s decision may ultimately be overshadowed by the negative impact to our farming industry and residents if we are not adequately equipped with qualified personnel.

The Agricultural Weights and Measures Office is a regulatory agency with a budget just over $5 million. It employs just three ag scientists.

The Weed Specialist position has been vacant since March 2014, following a resignation. The Plant Pathologist is Dr. Heather Scheck, who has 17 years in the department. The Entomologist is Dr. Brian Cabrera, with eight years of service, who recently saved the day for Santa Barbara by detecting HLB in an infected FedEx shipment. In the last two weeks even more psyllids have been trapped in orchards in the county — and more are expected.

Hardly a time, to strip down Ag’s science department.

These are county-wide positions, charged with providing pest identification and pest management expertise for agriculture, residents, and natural resource managers. These positions have been in the department for as long as 40 years (a Plant Pathologist was first hired in 1975). They are part of the key mission of the county’s pesticide-use reduction, which is achieved through accurate diagnostics and scientifically based pest management techniques. There is no charge to any county resident to have pests identified or to receive advice from these specialists. There is no one else in the county who can do the expert work that they do. There are no UC farm advisors based in Santa Barbara County: Both Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties each have five.

At the county budget hearings in June, the Ag Commissioner department was the only one in the entire county to request layoffs. This was despite the department’s budget expanding by $322,000 with 75 percent of this increase going to administration. Contrary to what Commissioner Fisher says, staff members contend that the layoffs will eliminate our three ag scientists — the Plant Pathologist, the Entomologist, and the Weed Specialist.

Commissioner Cathy Fisher claimed several different things during the budget process. First she said that the positions would go to half time for six months then be eliminated, because there was no work. When that was obviously unsupported by the facts, the plan was changed to say there was work but it could be done more “efficiently” by state employees in Sacramento. Many more objections were raised as to how sending work to a state agency, already strained, could be more efficient. Finally, she said that the best thing would be to create a new combination job where one person would do the work of both Plant Pathologist and Entomologist, one person would be demoted to Biologist, and the Weed Specialist job, which is vacant, would remain unfilled. But Santa Barbara needs more, not fewer, qualified ag scientists!

Fisher’s choices with regard to increasing the number of bureaucrats at the expense of well-qualified specialists with PhD degrees and many years of local experience in the fields of entomology, plant pathology, and weed control are devastatingly wrong-headed. Certainly, Dr. Brian Cabrera, our recent savior in the citrus psyllid affair, is not going to be willing or able to work for half of his current salary and will thus leave the department, as did the Weed Specialist, Dr. David Chang.

That will leave one scientist left — Dr. Heather Scheck. It is unlikely she would want to take on the tasks for her entire department solo.

We have also learned that while cutting crucially important jobs, Fisher has brought a dog to Santa Barbara to detect fruit in unmarked packages. Dogs can be helpful in big cities, but they don’t work quite as well here — if at all. Having a dog working in Santa Barbara County to sniff out fruit makes no sense as the Goleta Post Office is for bulk mail only, not parcels. Hence, this dog would only be able to work at UPS and FedEx, which both accept deliveries at the same time every day but at two completely different locations — one in Santa Maria and the other in Goleta. This is obviously impossible given the distance between these two cities.

We are now paying for the dog, its trainer, food, and board — which seems financially indefensible and another example of poor management and decision making. Fisher’s argument with regard to the need and expense (estimated at approximately $100,000 annually for its handler and its upkeep) for such a dog seems to change each time the subject is broached.

Earlier this year, we learned that one of the Santa Barbara scientists discovered that Oprah Winfrey’s property in Montecito has Phoenix palms infected with Fusarium wilt, a lethal disease. But when samples were sent to Sacramento — as the commissioner wants done now across the board — it took six weeks to get results, which is a long time to track an infectious, fatal disease. Sacramento typically takes six-eight weeks for quarantine samples, say ag staffers. Oprah’s samples took longer than a month.

Presently, the ag lab run by Scheck and Cabrera can do that analysis right here in Santa Barbara and at no cost! If it takes six weeks to get word to Oprah as to how and why her palms are dying, how long will the rest of us have to wait?!

Santa Barbara’s Board of Supervisors should move quickly to reverse their 3-2 vote earlier that authorized Commissioner Fisher’s ill-considered decisions. We must do whatever is necessary to preserve our county’s billion-dollar agricultural economy as well the environmental and ecological health for all of Santa Barbara.

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