The first time I ever presented in front of a group of strangers to advocate for agriculture, I was 10. The Alameda County Fair Board of Directors proposed an elimination of the Junior Livestock program at our annual fair, and the leader of my 4-H sheep project asked my mom to allow me to present at a board meeting so I could precociously convince the Board of the program’s importance. I don’t know what effect my specific speech had on the Board, but they kept the program, and I went on to a successful 8 year run of showing market lambs and breeding ewes at the fair, and the program is still active today. Since that first bit of advocacy, I’ve spent a decent amount of time trying to convince politicians and others of the importance of aspects of agriculture—e.g., more funding for research, availability of postharvest technologies in rural Mexico, etc.—and advocacy is a fitting use of my gregarious personality. As such, I am excited to have accepted a position with the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) to start in January.
As a nonprofit, NACD partners closely with the US’s 3,000 conservation districts, with a three-part mission of furthering education, partnerships and policy related to resource conservation in agriculture. As the Pacific Region Representative (covering various states on the west coast and the Pacific overseas territories), the position will allow me to address issues that have been close to my heart for decades, i.e., soil and water conservation in agriculture. Water conservation, in particular, is an extremely personal topic for me (not only because of my name, ha!), but because of spending some of my most formative years living with an inconsistent water supply on my parents’ ranch in Livermore, California. I consider myself extremely lucky to have been raised in the Bay Area, but growing up surrounded by so much opportunity and diversity did not guarantee that my family could turn on a faucet and clear water would come out. Reliability of water in rural California requires a combination of factors, including the availability of ample capital to dig a new well and/or improve the existing one with storage tanks, and having a well deep enough to be able to routinely reach a water table that fluctuates due to local growth in the community and regular drought. In our family, the capital issue was our primary limitation, and it wasn’t until the late aughts, i.e., 10 years after I left the ranch, that my parents were able to fully develop a water storage system to provide enough water for both the house and our livestock.
The lack of water at home was a frustrating issue when I was in high school (How do you do prom when you can’t shower? You shower at your girlfriend’s house before you get fancy. Thanks, Kaitlin!), but it became a source of motivation when I left the ranch and started as an undergraduate at UC Davis. Knowing I wanted to study some science, but not clear as to what, I started taking a variety of environmental science courses, including in hydrology and soils, as I could focus on topics related to agriculture, but address my developing interest in sustainability. In many of my courses, especially in hydrology, the dialogue at the time focused on the conflict between urban, agricultural, and environmental uses of water (save the Delta Smelt!); the predominant controversy at the time suggested that if water was allocated for one purpose, then clearly it would not be available for another. I found these debates fascinating and wanted to find some balance between the supposed competing interests. After spending the summer between my sophomore and junior year in Panama and realizing that we had it bad in California with our lack of water, but try living in the global south where indoor plumbing doesn’t even exist in many cases (I was a naïve kid in a lot of ways, this happens when your family doesn’t travel and you are left to learn about the world on your own), my dedication to global agricultural sustainability became my definitive career path.
After 10 years away from the Bay Area, my new position with NACD will allow me to return to my beloved California with a variety of perspectives from across North America (as I can be based anywhere in NACD’s Pacific Region, I will spend at least a few months back at the ranch, living my best life with llamas and fresh eggs). Having not worked in agriculture in the western states since I left the Natural Resources Conservation Service in 2011, I’m excited to learn what has changed since I left, and to work with agriculturalists on the forefront of sustainable resource use. Importantly, the position will also allow me to use what I consider my best assets, a ridiculously passionate personality and an obsession with engaging with people, to educate and be educated by-, partner with-, and advocate for agricultural producers.
Stay tuned for more updates as I transition back to California; hashtag ranch life will be getting some serious use while I identify where I will live long-term. In the interim, as I always end the blogs with some photos, here are a few from another of my homes, Rivers End Ranch.