Senator Shannon Grove of Bakersfield commands an unmatched persona in the Legislature. An untiring advocate for the agriculture industry, the conservative Republican has gained a reputation for routinely reminding her colleagues she represents the nation’s three most productive counties. As the top dairy producer, Tulare County also makes “stuff that your constituents eat or drink all the time—milk, ice cream, cheese.”

Grove’s progressive colleagues admiringly poke fun at her enduring pursuit, and she rolls with the punches. Yet the recurring oratories indicate the challenges Republicans struggle with in a Democratically dominated Legislature.

As the GOP voice continues to shrink in California, lawmakers like Grove scramble to express their opinions on the thousands of bills rolling through the Capitol each year. They race between as many as a dozen different policy committees per person. The rapid pace of hearings coupled with a trend of last-minute legislative proposals from the administration often forces the lawmakers to fall back on familiar talking points—resisting new spending on social programs, decrying a lack of transparency and pushing to invest in water storage infrastructure.

Grove, whose district spans the southern San Joaquin Valley and skirts along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada north to Fresno, is known for defending agriculture as vehemently as she does the oil and gas companies that are also her constituents.

Lately, however, her reputation has outpaced her advocacy.

“I’m excited about the dairy princess coming in for this,” quipped Sen. John Laird of Santa Cruz, as Grove entered a confirmation hearing in June for a member of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board.

Grove shot back at Laird: “Well do you have any dairy in your district?”

John Laird presentsSen. John Laird, D-Santa Cruz

As lobbyists know well, such banter between the two is commonplace. Laird often steals Grove’s lines, reminding lawmakers, for instance, that California produces two-thirds of the nation’s fruit and vegetables. When Grove once called for flood control measures to protect the Central Valley food supply, Laird let her know that food is grown outside the valley as well, such as in the Pajaro and Salinas valleys, which touch his district and have also faced flooding.

Laird plays the comedic foil to Grove’s strait-laced indictments, his Abbott to her Costello. As the most conservative lawmaker in the building, Grove inhabits the opposite end of the ideological spectrum to the progressive Laird, who led the state’s conservation programs in the Brown administration and often juxtaposes Grove on environmental issues.

Grove told Agri-Pulse, the jousting began when she noticed in Rules Committee hearings that Laird often started his comments with: "As the former Natural Resources secretary..." At the next hearing, Grove jumped in with her now-famous mantra: "Before the former secretary of Natural Resources speaks, I would like to remind him that my district feeds and fuels the nation with the top three food-producing counties in the world and the number one dairy producing county in the United States." Other legislators have since joined in, sometimes feeding her a line just for the slick comeback.

"You know, I see that you're making fun, but we don't eat a lot of beef in my district," one lawmaker told her.

She fired back: "I know but your granola-eaten yoga moms eat a lot of my nuts and fruits."

Grove was honored to be called a dairy princess, having met many actual California dairy princesses, who gained the moniker through a youth advocacy program with the California Milk Advisory Board. The attention she has gained through the playful asides has helped with educating her colleagues on where their food comes from, she said. It has also established personal connections that have built stronger work relationships. She recently sent a colleague a video of her driveway, which is a mile-and-a-half dirt road buffered by cows and grass. She told him: "I don't live in concrete."

Finding that middle ground is key to good policymaking, according to Laird. He told Agri-Pulse he has had fun pointing out Grove's advocacy and enjoys working with her on policies, particularly with agricultural issues.

“If you are doing your job as a legislator, you learn what is the character of your colleagues’ districts and how they choose to represent their local interests,” he wrote in an email while traveling abroad. “In building a relationship, you can look for the common ground.”

Fiery exchanges between the parties are often cooled later by Grove and Laird’s coy jabs across the aisle. When the Senate last month debated a budget trailer bill that would grant new protections for western Joshua trees in Grove’s district, she delivered a lengthy and heated retort, arguing that such policies bolster environmental interests and negatively impact vulnerable constituents—and she stressed that the plant is a succulent, not a tree. In the same breath, Grove blasted a provision from a Bay Area lawmaker to fund incentive grants for dairy feed additives that aim to reduce enteric methane emissions.

“I’d appreciate it if you guys focused on what’s good for your districts and leave mine alone,” she charged.

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Two days later, the legislative calendar was light and the mood hospitable.

“Just one more thing,” added Grove at the close of a routine and unrelated item. “The former secretary of natural resources wanted me to remind the members that the Joshua tree is a succulent and not a tree.”

The jest drove the tone minutes later for a discussion honoring farmers for June Dairy Month. A flurry of puns ensued.

“I rise today to recognize this udder-ly fantastic month,” said Republican Sen. Roger Niello of Fair Oaks. “You can all cow-nt on me to deliver some dairy good puns.”

Sen. Ben Allen of Santa Monica called Niello’s presentation dairy funny and legiti-milk.

“I would advise all my colleagues not to quit your day job,” snapped Grove.

Dairy products, she explained, are the state’s number one commodity in production value and “the lifeblood of many communities throughout our state.” Alongside GOP Sen. Brian Dahle of Bieber, Grove often argues that dairy farmers have achieved this while struggling to comply with regulatory mandates emanating from the Capitol. She added that when the Tulare basin flooded earlier this year, dairy farmers in her district stepped up with equipment and helped neighbors evacuate, and they have also led the state in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Grove then took a moment to clarify to her colleagues that chocolate milk does not actually come from brown cows. She derided Sen. Brian Jones of San Diego, a fellow Republican, for asking if there is a difference between a cow who produces milk and a cow used for beef.

“We clearly need an education on dairy products,” she lamented, as she encouraged all her colleagues to take a bus tour of Central Valley dairies and farms.

In his defense, Jones responded that he is the only senator who represents a camel dairy. Sen. Josh Becker of Menlo Park, meanwhile, sheepishly replied to another jab at his feed additives legislation, thanking Grove for working with him on it.

As the session wraps up for the year, however, the casual humor in the Senate is fleeting.

The policy committees where Grove and Laird often sparred are done for the year. Legislators last week left Sacramento, returning to their districts for summer recess. When they return in August, the last month of session will quickly count down. Hundreds of measures will come up for floor votes and ambitious eleventh-hour budget trailer bills, high emotions and some of the most contentious and heated policy debates are yet to come.

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