Julian Lopez

DEPUTY AGRICULTURAL COMMISSIONER FOR IMPERIAL COUNTY

FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT

Welcome to the AgSnacc Podcast where we take a look at careers in agriculture and the journey toward those careers. I’m your host, Erin Gorter, and we hope you enjoy this tasty AgSnacc. 

 

Erin Gorter:

Alright so we're here today with Julian Lopez, the deputy agricultural commissioner. Julian, how are you?  

 

Julian Lopez:

I'm doing great. How are you doing? 

 

Erin Gorter:

Fantastic fantastic. So, we usually start off with a description of what you do and what a typical day looks like at work.  

 

Julian Lopez:

Sure. I am a Deputy Agricultural Commissioner here in the County of Imperial and what I do is help to make sure that pesticides are used safely and effectively so that they don't result in somebody getting injured or being misused in a way that could possibly contaminate the environment or affect human health or somebody else's property. A typical day in my life is I try to do the same thing every single morning. When I wake up, trying to meditate. I'll drink some energy whether it be coffee or tea or something green. Something like apples and with lemon, a juice of some sort. Then have recently, actually, not recently, maybe like two years ago I started journaling and I've really enjoyed that. I'll just sort of write what is in my mind at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning. Something I'm grateful for, something I'm excited about ,what my focus is for that day, my exercise and then the tasks and priorities that have to get done. Once I get into the office then at the end of the day, I'll kind of reflect and talk about what went well, something I'd like to improve on and then I need to do something physical. So, I'll do some sort of anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours, depends on how much time, I have I'll do some stretching. If it's yoga day, I'll do some yoga. If not, I'll hit the weights then my rower, my new rower, and just try to get my body moving just to get ready for the day. Kind of generate energy to have energy sort of deal. Take a cold shower and then at that point it's just let's get to work. Hug and kiss the kids and get in my truck and off to the office. Once  I'm there just check in with all my staff.  I have 10 staff that reports to me and just kind of check in with them and see how they're doing. Ask them questions: what are you guys doing today? What are you getting into? What are you working on? Then I'll go in my office and open up my journal and look at the tasks and priorities for the day. So, in preparation for this interview, I look back to see what I did this week. I was reviewing some investigations. I was reviewing investigations that resulted from the misuse of pesticides. I can't share names, but I can share certain incidents. There was an aerial applicator that applied a pesticide to a lettuce field and some of the pesticide drifted onto some workers that were working in the adjacent field. That is a violation, and so as Deputy Ag Commissioner, my job is to make sure that the proper enforcement actions take place so I'm kind of like the ag police. I had to issue a civil penalty. I don't want to bore you with the details but ultimately, we ended up fining the pilot about $3500 for applying a pesticide against what the label prescribed. Then that was the investigation in what we call the civil penalties. And then usually have a lot of meetings so I have to keep my boss informed. I have to keep my staff informed as well. So, meetings with the California Department of Food and Agriculture, meetings with the Department of Pesticide Regulation, other County agencies that we have partnerships with, and then just putting together some work plans. That was my week. So, investigations, writing some civil penalties, having to make some difficult conversations to the agricultural industry. My job is to help promote and protect agriculture. The way that I fit in as a county employee, as an employee of the ag commissioner, is to make sure that if there ever is 1 bad actor, that we address that to make sure that it doesn't happen again. That helps to protect agriculture because that means that the next time that the pilot goes and sprays that field, he'll be a lot more careful. This ensures a healthy food supply and it also helps to make sure that agriculture doesn't ever result in somebody getting sick. Whether it be from the pesticides that were applied directly to it, or to make sure that no pesticides actually drifted away from that field. When used safely and effectively pesticides are actually a very valuable tool for growers to make sure that you and I can eat a beautiful head of lettuce. 

 

Erin Gorter:

Delicious. When you were a young buck in high school, did you think you were going to be part of the ag police as a deputy agricultural commissioner? Or did you have other career goals? 

 

Julian Lopez:

Yeah, I had no idea what the I commissioner ever did. I knew they existed because I grew up in an ag county, so I knew there out there, had no idea what exactly they did. I just thought they sampled stuff to make sure that it was safe for us to eat. That's the extent of my knowledge. So, no I had no really, I don't want to say no ambition for that but, I just didn't know. I had no idea this is where I would end up. When I was younger, what I wanted to do, is just play baseball for as long as I possibly could. I was so immature that I just thought, well when I'm done playing baseball, I'll just become the coach of wherever I end up. That's where I thought I was going to end up. In college, when I made my career ended just because I wasn't good enough anymore and some other injuries, it became clear that you know maybe baseball wasn't really my true calling. I took a lot of science courses in high school and so that really set the path forward for me to get involved in the ag sciences specifically. 

 

Erin Gorter:

So, you took a lot of science courses and you were heavily involved in sports it sounds like in high school. What was kind of your path after high school? What education steps did you take next while playing baseball? And then where did your kind of work experience background come from after that? 

 

Julian Lopez:  

Okay, so, after I graduated high school. What I'll do is kind of take you into what happened immediately there afterwards, and then maybe bring it back to when I was really young kid. After high school I applied and was admitted into the University of California Riverside, and I went there because I was going to get an opportunity to continue playing baseball. That’s really why I went there. Once I was there ended up majoring in biology and in Chicano studies. I graduated from UC Riverside and then I applied to a post-Baccalaureate science program that is in a partnership with Cal State [Los Angeles] and UCLA. I did that for two years and then I came home. Came home; back to the Imperial Valley. I couldn't find a job right off the bat, so I think I applied to become a youth coordinator through the Imperial County Probation Department. So, I worked with juvenile delinquents and as part of this after school program for maybe six months, and then I saw a position open up at the agriculture Commissioner's Office. The requirement was a Bachelor's degree in biology, so I thought well that's me, so I applied. I've been there, next year it will be 10 years, and so that was sort of my path from college to where I'm at now. Then I guess I'll kind of start from the beginning. I was born in Pomona. My parents are Cal Poly graduates and so I lived there until I was about five. Then we moved down to the Imperial Valley; that's where my parents are originally from. Once I was here all I ever knew was just work. So, my dad being a principle, would take me to his school, and because the school always had some kind of agricultural garden or something they were growing, on weekends, and during holidays, and during those extended breaks, well I was the guy that was maintaining all of those fields, all of the gardens, and what not. My dad never paid me even though he promised he would, but he never did. Then during the summers, I would also travel with my mom. My mom worked for a big ag company here in the Imperial Valley that also grows in the Salinas Valley. I would go with her up to Salinas and we would walk strawberry fields and my mom was doing a lot of the risk management, and human resources, a lot of the paperwork for the employees that work in these fields. And so, I was just always around work and agriculture. Pretty much at a young age, that's all I really knew. I didn't know any better. My family also owned a bakery in Brawley and so I would wake up like at three in the morning with my parents. We would go be a helping hand and start brewing coffee and start the machines and start getting everything ready. Because our shop would open up at four in the morning and bunch of farmers would come in and get their coffee, get burritos. So, that was just,  I don't know better. Just, it was, all this is just the way life is. You work and you get paid and that's it. 

 

Erin Gorter:

So, you specifically addressed how work was looked at in your like house growing up. What about education? 

 

Julian Lopez:

So, education was always pushed. It was like you gotta do your homework first and then you can go outside and do your extracurriculars. Whether it be school, or hanging out with friends, or anything else. So, education was pushed in my house growing up as the first and foremost important thing that we were going to do for that day. After that then it was just work. Okay, I'm going to go to the bakery. Alright, I'm heading up to Salinas. Okay, I need you to come with me tomorrow morning to help me with the garden at the school because the lawns growing. Everybody is on vacation. But education came first. It was always, if I had anything else going on: school, if my grades are dropping, you're not going to play baseball this year, or you're not going to play on that extra team, you're not going to go to that club anymore. It was school came first. So, that was my parents’ way of making sure that I stayed on top of my studies. 

 

Erin Gorter:

Got you. What is your favorite part about your day at work now? 

 

Julian Lopez:

Definitely the interactions with people. Then learning more about things that I didn't know about. Like, how does Bermuda grow? How to grow a lettuce? How to, you know, maintain soil conditions? Things that, you know, I don't have a lot of training in. And so, interacting with agricultural professionals, like pest control advisors, growers and pest control businesses, and learning more from them because it's really hard to grow food. A lot of times people have no idea what it takes to grow a strawberry or an onion. Or how it gets from the farm to your plate, and how much work went into that. How much sacrifice and really how much knowledge was applied in order to grow it. It's not just let's plant something and then watch it grow. It's let's plant it. Let's hope the rain and the weather doesn't interfere. Let's hope that this bug doesn't eat it up; and then it's a matter of harvesting it. There's just so much science that goes into that. That's my favorite part is just learning more from the food that we eat, learning where it comes from and the hands that that harvested it. 

 

Erin Gorter:

What's the most challenging part about your day at work? 

 

Julian Lopez:

So, I work in government. And the most challenging part is definitely the politics. Sometimes the decisions that are made, that have nothing to do with our jobs; it has to do with the decision that was made because of the perception of someone outside of the building. It's really hard for me to understand because I do see myself as like a real logical, sort of you know science person, and then when these decisions are made, it's really hard for me to like comprehend it. That makes it very difficult for me sometimes. But as I've matured in the last few years, I think I have a greater understanding for that and at the end of the day our job is pretty simple: promote and protect agriculture. Be an advocate for agriculture, not just in my county, but across the state.  

 

Erin Gorter:

So, there's a network of people like you across the state, correct? 

 

Julian Lopez:

Yeah, it's very unique, so California is the only state in the country that has this agricultural commissioner system. There are 58 counties I believe, 56 commissioners and it's very unique. When we do go to like Washington DC, and meet with legislators, we kind of have to bring that because nobody else knows that this system exists. I do like to promote that because California is an ag state, even though where we have these densely populated urban areas, food is grown here. A lot of it, $50 billion worth is actually grown here. So, our job is to make sure that we continue feeding the world.  

 

Erin Gorter:

Speaking of food, what is your favorite commodity? 

 

Julian Lopez:

You know, out of all the questions, I found this one the hardest. Like I don't know. I love everything. I love avocados, and I love grapes, and kind of the history of the grape. I would, I mean, I love strawberries and man. I also love a good steak and cheese. And the Imperial County’s number one commodity is livestock and cattle, so I'd feel a little guilty if I didn't promote beef. But I think ultimately, I would have to say mangoes. I love mangoes. 

 

Erin Gorter:

Mangoes? That came out of left field. 

 

Julian Lopez:

It did. It did. I love mangoes. Very versatile. And yeah, I love mangoes. Mango salsa, [unclear audio] and just eating it. Just you know, mangoes. 

 

Erin Gorter:

Delicious. Delicious. Alright, so can you think of any like internship opportunities or volunteer opportunities activities of some kind, that high school students could get involved in now to learn more about what it's like to be a deputy agricultural commissioner? 

 

Julian Lopez:

Sure , so what I would do is reach out to your local ag commissioner’s office and ask if there are any opportunities. Every county is different. In Imperial County, we don't necessarily have anything specifically for high school students, but we do for college students that are majoring in an ag related field. The whole intent is just to provide them with a little bit of training and work experience, and to start building up a network and a resume so that when they do graduate from college, they know that a career at the agriculture commissioner's office is possible. But there are so many different counties that I would just have them reach out and ask. Picking up the phone and asking questions is actually a really important tool. I used to not like it, but now it's just, I have to do it, first of all. And now I actually enjoy it. It's the best way to get information despite all the advances we've made in technology. Picking up the phone and calling somebody and having a conversation, that's going to get you places. 

 

Erin Gorter:

For sure. So, I guess kind of hitting on that, picking up the phone technology. What do you think are some changes that you will see in industry, or in general, that are going to impact your profession, specifically in the next 20 years? 

 

Julian Lopez:

That's a great question. I think that we're going to see a push towards using less harsher chemicals. Seeing how our office is able to somehow manage the realities of growing food, with what all the new state rules are pushing towards, is going to be a challenge that we face now until at least for the next 20 years. There's a lot of talk about sustainable agriculture and using water efficiently. We're going to have to continue feeding the world with less water, with less chemicals available, and so that means that we're going to have to innovate. We're going to, and as a government worker, we're going to learn to keep up with, that innovation to make sure that California is able to maintain this strong standing of growing the world's food. And, another huge challenge is, as our climate changes, and there's wildfires, and homes are now being built directly next to farms, schools are being next to farms, there's this whole ag urban interface, which means a lot of education, a lot of outreach, and really educating people on the realities of living next to farms and ranches and just agriculture in general. I think those are things that are upon us now, but we're going to have to get really good at those things in the next 10 to 20 years. 

 

Erin Gorter:

Yeah, that's super good advice, and like items to ponder moving forward in life, other skill sets you can be like picking up on and homing in on for the future. Alright you ready for the last question? 

 

Julian Lopez:

Yeah. Let's hear it. 

 

Erin Gorter:

[If] you could go back to 15- or 16-year-old Julian, what's the biggest piece of advice you would give yourself? 

 

Julian Lopez:

You know? The biggest piece of advice, I would just remind myself of what my dad told me when I was that age. Which is work really hard, and just treat people nicely on your way up the ladder of success, which means: be humble, be kind, work hard, simple things. Listen. I would say listen. Become a good listener. Shut your mouth basically. 

 

Erin Gorter:

You have two ears and one mouth for a reason. 

 

Julian Lopez:

That's right, you know. 

 

Erin Gorter:

Awesome, good advice. Well thank you again. This is Julian Lopez, a deputy agricultural commissioner with Imperial County. Thank you  

 

Julian Lopez:

Thank you. 

 

Thank you for listening to this AgSnacc, a production of the Brock Center for Agricultural Communication at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in collaboration with the South Coast Region Agricultural Education Consortium. For more information, please visit our website at www.agsnacc.com. That’s www.a-g-s-n-a-c-c.com.