The Legislature this month unanimously confirmed Gov. Gavin Newsom’s appointment of Julie Henderson to direct the Department of Pesticide Regulation.

Henderson has served as acting director for more than a year and previously held a role in public policy at CalEPA for four years. She spoke with Agri-Pulse on her first year in the role, engaging stakeholders on controversial issues and the emerging policies farmers should watch in the months ahead.

The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Looking back, how would you describe your first year?

We've made a lot of progress over the last year. We've had a really great opportunity to engage with all of our stakeholders on a number of really important initiatives for the administration. 

With the sustainable pest management effort, what we are trying to do as a state is accelerate the system-wide adoption of safer and more sustainable pest management practices that are in many places underway across the state. There are many growers who are practicing integrated pest management. What we're trying to do is really identify what supports and resources are needed to have a more widespread adoption of those practices and to accelerate that adoption to better protect public health and the environment in California. 

We are also making progress on the development of the statewide notification system and have had a lot of public engagement over the last year and are refining the proposed design of that system. We've also been conducting a study on our mill fee and have had a lot of great stakeholder engagement and input into that process as well.

Julie Henderson.jpgDPR Dir. Julie Henderson

I recently went on a specialty crop tour and saw a lot of really interesting developments with new technologies, including an autonomous weeding machine that uses sensors to spot weeds and pull them without the need to use pesticides to manage weeds. I've continued to try to get out and see practices in the field and see the work that's being done across the state.

Describe local backlash DPR has faced in communities like the Ojai Valley and Kern County.

Part of what we're trying to do with the statewide notification system is to really engage in a public discussion with all stakeholders. We've had multiple different opportunities for stakeholder engagement on the development of the system, beginning last year with focus groups. We had webinars, we've had online workshops, and we're planning to have in-person workshops in the fall to bring together stakeholders to provide input into the development of the process. 

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We also have been working on an ag commissioner community engagement framework, bringing together both ag commissioners and community member representatives to work through what kinds of information would be useful for commissioners and local community members to engage on so that there can be more of an open dialogue. And we really appreciate the engagement—both of the ag commissioners and community members—as part of that process. 

The issues in the Ojai Valley and in Kern County are ones that we are obviously paying a lot of attention to and really trying to develop processes and ways to have engagement and dialogue on issues that are of concern to all stakeholders and to come together in a way that's constructive, that can lead to solutions that everyone has input into. 

What is your response to concerns grower voices are drowned out at workshops?

Public engagement on the development of any public program is really important. Our goal is to make sure we're providing opportunities for all stakeholders to provide input on the development of the notification system. And those take multiple different forms. We also have at DPR regular meetings with stakeholder groups to provide opportunities for folks to share input on multiple different issues. 

I want to emphasize that these public opportunities to provide input—where stakeholders have an opportunity to hear each other—are important. But those are not the only opportunity and venue for stakeholders to provide input to us. Our doors are open to receiving feedback from folks in a variety of different ways.

How stable is DPR's funding when so many acres are coming out of production for drought this year and later for implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act?

We have been focused on the structure of the mill fee for a while now. We appreciate funding we received from the Legislature to do a study to address, in part, the structural viability of the mill fee going forward, to ensure that the department has stable funding to carry out our mission of protecting public health—both through regulating pesticide sales and use but also in fostering and supporting reduced-risk pest management practices and supporting the accelerated adoption of a sustainable pest management practices. 

We've had a lot of stakeholder engagement as part of that process. That's really vital to the development of our proposal. We will have a final draft proposal later this year.

With so many regulations and new programs, what is the workload like for DPR?

We have a really strong, dedicated team at DPR. They are working very hard—both on their core foundational work as well as on these initiatives that really reflect an evolution of our mission. Part of that mission is fostering reduced-risk pest management practices. That's what we're really focused on in developing this approach to accelerate the adoption of more sustainable practices. 

Part of ensuring that the team is going to be able to continue to do their work effectively is in looking at the mill going forward. Part of that study is looking at the resources that we need as a department to be able to continue to carry out our mission.

Can growers plan on having access to neonicotinoids and fumigants like 1,3-D five or ten years from now?

We, along with CalEPA and CDFA, convened the sustainable pest management workgroup to look at how can we, as a state, support more widespread adoption of safer practices. Part of that is to help manage issues we're dealing now with, like climate change and the drought. 

What period of time are we looking at? What kind of support and resources are needed to ensure there are tools and practices available to growers to continue to have a thriving agricultural sector at the same time? 

One of the things that's come up is the need for education and outreach to support growers in using more sustainable practices and more sustainable tools.

This is not an effort to eliminate pesticides, but really to have them used when they're needed and to be able to use safer practices when those are effective and limit the use of pesticides to when they're needed.

The Senate confirmed your appointment just as CalEPA Sec. Jared Blumenfeld announced he is stepping down. What will be different with his departure?

I would anticipate that [Amelia Yana Garcia Gonzalez], who is coming in as the new secretary will have consistent priorities with Secretary Blumenfeld and aligned with the administration's priorities. We're very sorry to see Jared leave, but also really excited to see Yana coming on board.

What should farmers be paying attention to in the coming months?

We just look forward to continuing to engage with the agriculture community as we look to implement the sustainable pest management roadmap, which we'll be releasing later this year, and to work with them as we continue to develop the notification system and to engage with us in conversations around the mill. 

I would really just like to emphasize what we're doing with sustainable pest management and the acceleration of those practices across the state. We are endeavoring to do this in a way that better protects public health, the environment—but really does continue to support a thriving agricultural sector. And that allows us to continue to have thriving rural and urban communities and promote equity across the state. 

We—with the engagement of all of our stakeholders—believe we can do that and are just looking forward to continuous engagement with all of them.

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