Monterey County ag commissioner has little 'down time?'

  • February 24, 2014

Eric Lauritzen

• AGE: 55 
OCCUPATION: Agricultural Commissioner and Sealer of Weights & Measures, County of Monterey. 
WORK: Mt. Eden Nursery, 1980-81. Ag biologist, Alameda County Ag Commission, 1982-84. San Mateo Deputy Ag Commissioner, 1984-89. Sonoma Ag Commissioner, 1989-98. Monterey Ag Commissioner, 1998-present. 
EDUCATION: BS in Plant Science from UC Davis, 1980. MS in Public Administration from Cal State East Bay, 1986. 
ORGANIZATIONS: Co-founded the AgKnowledge program. Board member of the Food Bank for Monterey County. 
PERSONAL: Lives in Pacific Grove with wife Danielle and their two children.

By Robert Walch
Californian Staff Writer

During the winter months when production shifts to the south, the fallow fields of Monterey County may suggest a quiet period when not much is happening, but the county’s agricultural commissioner, Eric Lauritzen, begs to differ with that assumption.

There’s plenty going on but it’s just not evident if you don’t look beyond the empty fields. The staff of the Agricultural Commissioner’soffice has plenty to keep it busy even when local coolers and packing operations may be all but deserted.

Having served as ag commissioner in two counties in Northern California, Lauritzen has learned that there is no “down time” for anyone in his position.

“During these months we develop our crop statistics for the release of our annual crop report, renew pesticide permits and handle the backlog of paper work,” he explained.

Lauritzen didn’t set out be in the regulatory field of the ag industry when he headed off to college. Having an uncle who was a dean at UC Davis drew Lauritzen to the campus but his hope was to enter the nursery business upon graduation. Actually, he did a short stint in the Bay Area with the Mt. Eden Nursery before switching over to Alameda County’s Department of Agriculture.

“There was a medfly outbreak at the time and I took a regulatory position which I found I enjoyed,” he said.

That decision took Lauritzen in an entirely new direction that eventually resulted in his being named deputy ag commissioner of San Mateo County and then the ag commissioner of Sonoma County.

At the time he took the Sonoma position, Lauritzen, who was 30, was the youngest ag commissioner in the state. The job also included the responsibility of Weights & Measures plus overseeing animal control.

What had been a rather diverse ag area at the time, Sonoma County became more focused on viniculture during Lauritzen’s nearly 10-year tenure. Being present for this growth and shift in emphasis provided valuable experience when Lauritzen eventually became Monterey County’s ag commissioner in 1998.

Pointing out that California is unique in that it is the only state where there are individual county ag commissioners, Lauritzen explained that this arrangement blends local control with state oversight and reflects the size and scope of the state’s vast ag industry.

“Naturally, this creates some challenges but it is also a great and positive system,” he said. “Monterey County is quite diverse and this office touches many facets of the community. This is a four-billion-dollar industry. If Monterey County were a state, we’d probably be the 26th or 27th state in the nation in terms of agricultural production.”

Because of this, there is an enormous need for a regulatory body and that’s where the Ag Commissioner’s office enters the picture.

“Every issue that touches agriculture happens here,” he said.

Whether it is a regional, state or federal issue or policy concerning agriculture, Monterey County probably is involved in some manner and, more often than not, the Ag Commissioner's office is asked for input.

The bulk of the office’s regulatory work falls into two areas: quarantine and pesticide. There are approximately 85 staff members who deal with these two areas. Inspections of not only incoming but outgoing agricultural materials are part of the job. This includes the certification of produce sent to foreign countries. Phytosanitary certification is necessary for exports and when some fresh produce or plants are sent to other states.

“Monterey County exports 740 million pounds of produce to 50 different countries and we issue anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 of these certificates every year,” Lauritzen explained.

Imports must meet federal requirements for entry into the country and the USDA handles that initial inspection but California has its own requirements and the county ag commissioners are tasked with that additional inspection.

With a big smile Lauritzen continued, “In a sense, the medfly initially got me into this line of work and I’m still dealing with pest issues in one way or another.”

The county’s pesticide regulatory program has two components. One centers on compliance and the oversight of pesticide application; the other is educational. Besides providing continuing education on pesticide use and safe application, the office also sponsors community awareness programs.

“Another of our goals is to build bridges between the regulated community, the farm laborers, environmental groups and the general public,” the ag commissioner said.

A facet of Lauritzen’s job that many people overlook is the Weights & Measures responsibility, which involves five staff members who travel throughout the county checking to see that the measuring devices that the public relies on are accurate.

“Be it gasoline or fresh vegetables, we certify the devices that are used for measuring things that are sold,” Lauritzen said. “We will also check the quantity statements on packaged goods to verify that they are accurate.”

The scales where a transaction occurs, like at a grocery store checkout counter, must be checked each year and they carry a sticker indicating this.

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