Last week, Governor Gavin Newsom appointed Val Dolcini as deputy secretary for agriculture, a new position within the California Environmental Protection Agency. The role is somewhat of a return to the agency’s early years. When CalEPA opened in 1991, an agricultural liaison would ensure that the ag industry’s interests were represented in the regulatory processes.
During President Obama’s second term, Dolcini served as administrator for the USDA Farm Service Agency and oversaw California programs with the agency during the Clinton administration. Most recently he served as CEO of the Pollinator Partnership, based in Washington, D.C.
While visiting San Francisco yesterday, he spoke with Agri-Pulse on the many challenges ahead when it comes to the water, pesticide, air and health issues under CalEPA’s mandate, as well as his strategy when it comes to fulfilling this role of Newsom’s ag ambassador for the agency.
You spent several years at USDA. As state executive director of California FSA under two administrations, what were some of the challenges that came across your desk then?
Well I started much earlier in my career in the final years of the Clinton administration. So just getting up to speed on USDA programs and issues and the challenges of just working with a bureaucracy that was 3,000 miles away and implementing programs on the ground in California was certainly a challenge. But the diversity of California agriculture represented the biggest professional challenge—but also that was a lot of fun, too.
Rather than represent a state that relied solely on commodity crops like wheat, corn or rice, California had nearly 400 different crops. So, I was learning something every day about the diversity, the depth, the breadth and the scope of California agriculture and the farm families that make up California agriculture.
How did that experience influence your time as FSA administrator?
It certainly gave me a solid A-to-Z understanding of what the agency could do for farmers and ranchers. I was able to take a lot of the experiences I had gained in the fields of California back to Washington, D.C.
I always felt like I was a better administrator if I got out from behind my desk from time to time and into the fields, working not only with our customers but the 15,000 or so employees who made up the Farm Service Agency and 2,200 offices from Maine to California. All of that time spent on the roads, highways and byways of the Golden State—and I visited all 58 counties when I was the state executive director—really equipped me well for being the national administrator. Customers as well as employees really responded to my interest in being out in the field and they could see that I had a lot of passion for the work of farmers and ranchers, too. It was a great professional experience and a really wonderful personal experience.
What made you decide to leave Washington for California?
I grew up in Davis. I’m a fifth generation Californian. My mother is still out in the Sacramento area and I’ve got siblings, friends and other family members in California, too, not the least of which is my son, who lives in Los Angeles.
My wife and I felt we would always return to California. The question was just under what circumstances and if there would be an opportunity for me to continue my public service career. When this opportunity presented itself, we both thought it was a great way to get back home.
Can you describe this new role for CalEPA?
I don’t have a ton of detail to share at this point. I’m really going to hit the ground running on May 1, when I start my new job.
More than anything, it really demonstrates the governor’s commitment to the future of the Central Valley and to the success of the Central Valley. He’s got me at CalEPA. He’s got Karen Ross, who’s a really experienced and highly regarded secretary, at CDFA. He’s got Bill Lyons, who’s providing him with insights, input, observation and experience as a family farmer, advising him on water and agricultural issues. The agriculture industry will be really well represented throughout California state government.
It’s been clear since his inauguration that Governor Newsom is really interested in making sure that agriculture has a seat at the table and is a full partner in the policies, plans and programs of his administration. I plan to be a really aggressive and proactive ambassador for the Newsom administration at CalEPA.
You're stepping in to CalEPA at an interesting time with a lot of politicized issues under its umbrella, from a ban on chlorpyrifos to a new push by the governor and others on clean water issues and resistance bills in the state legislature pushing back on deregulation from the Trump administration. Does it seem a bit overwhelming?
I’m going to be surrounded by a really great team, not only at CalEPA but some of the folks I mentioned as well. I like a challenge and I’m certainly going to be challenged professionally in this new role. You cited some of the issues. I think that is the tip of the iceberg really when it comes to regulatory, legal and legislative issues that impact one of the leading industries in California’s economy.
I’m going to start having informal phone conversations with folks over the next few weeks. By the first of May, when I report to the CalEPA building for duty, I’m sure my plate will be full. These are important issues that deserve thoughtful consideration and that’s been a hallmark of my approach as a professional over the years, as really trying to collaborate with all the parties that are impacted by a given decision and make sure that their point of view is taken into consideration. I won’t always be able to provide the sort of relief that folks are looking for. But more often than not it will be a process that’s inclusive and transparent and one that I really hope is supportive of the great work that farmers and ranchers do every day, mostly in an unheralded way.
We take for granted in this country and certainly in this state the work that farmers and ranchers do. Right now, I’m looking over a city that doesn’t have an immediate connection to the farm fields of California. But we’re in a food shed a hundred miles from here that accounts for some of the highest value crops and the most nutritious crops that are produced in the world. I just want to make sure that I’m an able, effective, hard-working and an energetic advocate on behalf of California farmers and ranchers.
Anything else you would like to add?
What I would really like to do in the first few months is do some traveling around the state and meet with groups—not just in Sacramento but up and down the Central Valley and corners of the state that don’t get a lot of attention or visibility from Sacramento. That will be part of my recipe for what will hopefully be a successful tenure in this position here.
It’s a new position here at CalEPA and one that I’m really glad I was considered for and was ultimately chosen for this role. It’s going to be both challenging and very exhilarating, and hopefully a lot of fun at the end of the day.