The California Farm Bureau elected Shannon Douglass to a two-year term as its president in December. She previously served as CAFB vice president and is the first woman to head the organization. 

She also runs Douglass Ranch in Orland with her husband, Kelly. 

Agri-Pulse asked about her first six months as president and what advocacy priorities will look like for CAFB under her leadership.

She took over the state’s largest general farm organization in a challenging financial situation. For 2022, the group reported a deficit of about $4 million on revenues of just over $11 million, with total assets of $76.7 million.

The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Describe how your career path and ranching operation led you to Farm Bureau presidency.

I started getting involved in [the] Farm Bureau in college. I went to Chico State and was involved in the Butte County Young Farmers and Ranchers program through the Butte County Farm Bureau. I was able to get involved in a campaign fighting against a local measure. … I accidentally ended up doing some media interviews … but also got to be part of their campaign walks, where we would go door-to-door and talk to people at their homes. By many accounts it was an uphill battle that we probably should have lost, and the message should have passed just by the community sentiment and the type of press regarding GMOs at the time. But by taking action and by working on that campaign, we could make a difference—and I got to see the impact.

When I settled in Glenn County with my husband, we were … part of the group that started the Young Farmers [&] Ranchers program in Glenn County. That was just such a great way to be connected with other people who were in similar stages of life as us. I ended up the chair of our … program, then I went to serve on our state committee for a number of years. Eventually I was the chairman…. About seven years ago, when there was the opportunity to run for statewide office, I thought, I think it's the right time and I think I could help and … serve our members well in this role. I served for six years as the first vice president at California Farm Bureau and then in December was elected the president ….

My husband was born and raised on a dairy. Before we finished college, we started our farm enterprise on a very, very small scale. There were dairy heifers involved, initially replacement dairy heifers and then beef cattle. Today we are diversified farmers with a real combination of things. We have beef cattle, we have walnuts. We grow forage crops—primarily alfalfa, dairy silage, retail hay. We do specialty sunflower seeds or seed production, and then other commodities that come and go, just depending on the markets and needs year to year. 

I graduated from college with a degree in agriculture. I then went to work for Chico State. While I was there, I went back to school, got my master's degree in ag policy. As we were trying to expand the farm operation and start a family, there was a need for a lot more flexibility. So I, with a partner, started CalAg Jobs. For over a decade now CalAg Jobs has worked to try to connect employers with candidates in California agriculture. 

So that's been my Farm Bureau path. It really started because I saw the impact that Farm Bureau could have and the amazing work that could be done when we work together across commodities and across regions, etc. 

How have the first months of your CAFB presidency gone, and what do you think makes you stand out from previous presidents?

I think that each president of the CAFB has brought some unique perspectives to the table and different styles. In the CAFB, we do have term limits for our presidents. Not all states have that. I think it's neat to find some things that were great from a particular president, and then keep adapting things over time. 

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… In December of 2023 our delegates said, We really want to start thinking about our structure at CAFB and if we have a structure that makes the most sense. Farm Bureau's 105-plus years old now, so things have to adapt over time. This is a concept that our delegates passed unanimously. 

… [A] very big part of my first six months [has been] the process of going through and hiring and now recently being able to announce our first-ever chief operating officer. We are really excited to have Dan Durheim on board. He brings with him almost 20 years of experience with the American Farm Bureau. He is not a lobbyist .… We have a great advocacy department … but we also needed to have someone with an operations and a marketing background, and Dan brings that as well as his experiences growing up as a Minnesota farm kid. 

Now we get to have some more time for activities in the next six months and continue to work with our counties and our members … on finding solutions to our California farmer challenges.

We're wrapping up with the next legislative session. Is there anything that you are going to keep a close eye on?

We’re keeping a watchful eye in general. We do have our CAFB sponsored bill that is looking at the health impacts of wildfires, trying to collect a lot more data. We're anticipating that the data will frankly show—as most of us in California know—that smoke does have negative health impacts for our children, for our schools, for our community. … [B]y recognizing that, we're hoping to help justify the need for continued forest management and managing fuels in areas where wildfires have been so prevalent. 

The budget situation in California is something we will keep monitoring because there are a lot of programs that we're concerned about what the funding is going to look like, as well as some other ways that the state will look to fill some of these budget gaps. 

Talk a little bit about women in leadership roles—particularly in the agricultural industry—and what your advocacy looks like there.

There are seven state farm bureau presidents who are women. … I am the first in California. … Well over 30% of farms are owned and operated by women, so I think it's not surprising that we've seen … more female faces emerging and continue to be involved as leaders in their own businesses and on their own farms. I am very thankful for all of the women who got involved when it was less easy to get involved. 

One thing that's been very important to me is encouraging people to get involved and to stay involved. We know that people have busy lives and sometimes the work that we do can be overwhelming. I want to really be sure that we don't have anyone saying, “Oh, I can't get involved because it's really a group that's not for me. It's a group where I don't fit those demographics.” … [I]t's important for people to know that Farm Bureau is about our advocacy as farmers and ranchers. If you have the interest and passion in that space, we'd love to have you engaged. Maybe that's working in our ag education programs at the county level or state level, or maybe that's serving on one of our statewide committees. 

Are there any messages you have for the lawmakers or their staff who read this?

It's been important this year that we have talked to our elected officials and our regulatory staff about the challenges we're facing in this farm economy and the pressures on our California growers. As we see increased regulatory pressures, it makes it harder and harder, particularly for our small and disadvantaged farmers. From the outside they think, ‘Well, you know … it’s a small amount. It's just a few pennies per unit.” But it really adds up. 

There was a regulatory-cost study done by Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. I just got word that they are looking to repeat that [study] for a third time … I will be very fascinated to see what the results are. In a 10-year time span, regulatory costs had increased for a midsize grower on the Central Coast by 795%. Our growers are having that eight-fold increase, basically, when they are competing against products from other states and other countries that do not have that burden and that legitimately can produce cheaper. 

It becomes very frustrating to be in a state that seems to want local farms and small farms and making sure we have local food in the communities, but at the same time the regulatory burden placed on us makes it so hard to do that. 

Sacramento politics are often challenging and contentious. What’s it like stepping into an arena like this?

I don't think it was a surprise. … [F]or me, the motivation to keep at it and keep pushing forward is really how important it is for the next generation. So yes, it can be very frustrating. Yes, we have a real uphill battle, but we do have the opportunity to make a difference. I very much want to make sure that my son and his peers, your readers' grandchildren or nieces or nephews or whoever's just going to buy their farm … to make sure that they get to have that opportunity here in California. Frankly our state needs it, too. 

We're going to have to continue fighting and telling our story, and the work that we do just becomes more important than ever before. 

Is there anything else you’d like people to know?

I think it’s helpful to share with people the importance of working together. These are really trying times in agriculture [and] we recognize that it's reminding people of some rough decades that we had before. There aren't a whole lot of sectors of ag that are doing well—it’s why so many people have diversified over time. 

But when things are challenging is really when I would argue we need Farm Bureau more than ever before. When things are hard is when we have to make sure we have our voice at the table. … [W]hether it's about our legislative issues or dealing with some of the regulatory challenges, it's having our representatives at the water meetings and the SGMA meetings and being engaged … on trade issues and on and on and with Department of Pesticide Regulation. 

But while it is challenging, it's so critically important to stay engaged and stay a part of us. So if people have not gotten involved in Farm Bureau before, I'd really encourage them. Now is a great time to get involved.