A Kindle copy of Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” has been sitting on County Agriculture Commissioner Kevin Wright’s table for months, and by the end of the week, he’ll finally get a chance to pick it up.
Wright, who has filled the role since 2013 after serving seven years as the deputy agriculture commissioner for the county, has a relaxing retirement plan in mind.
“I’ve been commuting up here an hour and 10 minutes each way for 13 years,” said Wright, who lives in Manteca. “I was also in the Peace Corps and did a lot of travelling, so my inclination is to enjoy where I am.”
Wright joked that he’d like to read more books – starting with Hawking – and less regulations.
With his newfound freedom, the former Oklahoma fish farm owner of 12 years plans on making regular fishing trips to Calaveras County during the week to beat the weekend rush, spending more time with family and reconnecting with old friends.
During his time with the county, Wright was at the helm of the state’s first Agriculture Commissioner’s department to provide regulatory pesticide oversight for cannabis cultivators, and he oversaw the development of an effective, cost-efficient weights and measures laboratory, according to a proclamation recognizing his work.
On his way out the door, Wright took some time to talk agriculture with the Enterprise.
CE: How do you think the Board of Supervisors did with the commercial cannabis cultivation regulations?
KW: I think there were aspects of it they did well – the acreage limitations were good, setbacks, the ability to transfer licenses, requirements for remediation. Then there are some aspects that are a little difficult – greenhouse gas emission offsets, well testing in September for five years. Background clearance on trimmers might be hard to enforce. It took them a long time to come to where they are now, but overall the ordinance is much better than what they had in the past. One of the failings on it was they didn’t get a consensus on the administrative costs and procedures before they passed the ordinance, and that was the biggest concern that everybody has.
CE: Any foresight on what the cannabis industry will look like in Calaveras County?
KW: There may be a glut, and it may be difficult for cannabis growers in the future, especially when track-and-trace becomes more sophisticated and there won’t be cannabis going out the backdoor that’s not going to be taxed. Cannabis growers are going to have to have their marketing plan, know who their customers are. The most sophisticated of the ones we have now are doing that, but there’s been plenty of instances where people have grown, not had a market for it, and wound up getting in serious trouble. Like any legitimate farming operation, you have to have in mind who your customers are before you plant.
CE: What do you see for the future of winegrapes and vineyard development?
KW: I think it’s pretty stable. Our wine industry, I don’t think it’s going to expand to much more than what it is. But we do have a pretty good reputation for what we do grow. And it’s a magnet for tourists that come up here; they want to sample our wines. But acreage has been stable over the past decade. We’ve had some go in and some go out, but it’s always been somewhere between 700 and 800 acres.
CE: Is there a concern that many local growers could be severely impacted by the state’s winegrape glut?
KW: It affects some of the growers that are in the lower elevations of the county that have to compete with valley-grown grapes. Hopefully they do have contacts with whoever they’re selling to, but the price is probably going to be lower. We have growers that sell over to Napa and Sonoma County, I would say a third or so. In some cases, it’s going to be a benefit to the county, like Ironstone imports from other areas. For the most part, I would say the glut is of some concern, but if you have a quality product and know who your customers are, they’re still going to stick by you. If you have extra grapes, that might be difficult.
CE: Timber and cattle are consistently the largest producers, providing more than half of all agricultural production in 2018. Are there any significant issues facing either of those industries?
KW: Timber and cattle are our biggest producers and there’s a reason for that. We have good pastures, and Sierra Pacific Industries, who are really experienced long-term growers that know what they’re doing. For ranchers, there are some problems with invasive species, like Medusahead and barbed goatgrass, and there’s no silver bullet that’ll take care of that. They’ll reduce the quality of the rangeland, making areas unusable for grazing. There needs to be more research done as far as ways to handle that. Fire is always a concern, not only for timber and cattle but for the county in general, and in timberlands, you have illegal cannabis grows, so those are a concern. Really the timber and cattle are definitely pluses for the county in that fire safety is the biggest concern for any citizen in the county, and both provide fuel load reduction. I think the benefits of agriculture to help with the prevention of fires and fuel load really can’t be overemphasized. If you didn’t have those cows in Valley Springs, that would all be just brush, and the county would be more or less a tinderbox, so the contribution that longterm rangeland holders, ranchers make for the safety of the county is sometimes overlooked, but it’s really kind of huge.
CE: What developments do you see in organic agriculture?
KW: There are about nine farms that are registered to be organic with the state, and about 600 farms total in the county. For a small guy in the county who is just marketing in the farmer’s markets and farm stands and that sort of thing, it’s more important for consumers to know who those producers are – the farm-to-fork people. But people who take their product and go to the San Francisco market or Santa Cruz market, those consumers are looking to see that it actually says, “organic.” Some farmers are growing sustainably, using good and safe practices, but don’t have the paperwork to be organic because it’s a burden.
CE: What will you miss most about the job?
KW: I’m going to miss my staff. They’re competent, they care about the job and they’ve been loyal to me. In the variety of things we do, the variety of people that I run into, it just seems like there are all kinds of characters, and there’s very competent people. Working with the general public that are involved in agriculture has been kind of fun for me.