Juan Hidalgo: Working Together to Support Agriculture in Santa Cruz County

Juan Hidalgo has been serving Santa Cruz County residents and members of industry for 13 years. In December of 2015, he was appointed Agricultural Commissioner. Prior to his appointment, he served for three years as the Deputy Agricultural Commissioner overseeing the Pesticide Use Enforcement program. A graduate of the University of California, Davis with a Bachelor’s in Animal Science, Mr. Hidalgo, also serves as the County’s Sealer of Weights and Measures, and the Director of the Mosquito and Vector Control Division.

In his current role Mr. Hidalgo oversees programs in the Agricultural Division, Weights and Measures Division and Mosquito and Vector Control Division. The program goals for all three divisions include protecting the food supply, protecting the environment, and safeguarding human health, in addition to promoting equity in the marketplace and ensuring pesticides are used safely and effectively. Additional goals include quickly detecting and effectively controlling human disease vectors, preventing the entry of and achieving early detection of agricultural and environmental pests, and responding to citizen and regulated business inquiries and complaints quickly and effectively – all of which is not a small job. Speaking of the challenges, Mr. Hidalgo says, “Perhaps the most challenging thing about my job is making sure that I continually process and evaluate all the information I receive on a daily basis to ensure our programs run effectively and to ensure any concerns from stakeholders are addressed.”

When asked about frequent questions he receives Mr.  Hidalgo said a common one comes from applicators about wind speed restrictions during a pesticide application: “The answer to this question can be found on most pesticide labels. Many pesticide labels require that the product not be applied when wind velocities exceed 10 miles per hour, however, applicators must also evaluate the application site, wind direction, the type of application equipment being used, proximity to persons and sensitive sites. An evaluation of all these different factors will help to ensure a safe and effective application.”

Major crops in Santa Cruz County include strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, lettuces and vegetables, nursery stock and cut flowers. A few of the prominent pests and diseases affecting these crops that growers must contend with are the Lygus bugs (Lygus Hesperus), Two-spotted Spider mite (Tetranychus urticae), Light Brown Apple Moth (Epiphyas postvittana), Sudden Oak Death (Phytophthora ramorum), Macrophomina phaseolina, Fusarium oxysporum, Lettuce Aphid (Nasonovia ribisnigri) and Spotted Wing Drosophila (Drosophila suzukii). One of the biggest concerns for agriculture in his county is the increase of soil borne diseases impacting strawberry production: “With the phase out of methyl bromide and limited availability of fumigant alternatives, research for new methods to control soil diseases has taken on a new urgency.” But Mr. Hidalgo is hopeful, “Newly awarded federal funds will continue to support research for alternative methods and to identify disease resistant plant varieties. While much of this work may take some time before it can be implemented at a commercial level, it is an important step to ensure strawberry production remains viable in California.”

To address these pressures and other changes in agriculture successfully, working together is important. “Having a good understanding of our roles in the services we provide to our growers and industry will be helpful in finding solutions for the challenges we have in common. Improved communication and collaboration will also improve the level of service we provide to our growers,” Mr. Hidalgo says. “CAPCA, PCAs and the Santa Cruz County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office can continue to better communicate and collaborate by ensuring that we share the challenges we face in the work we do.”

Commenting on the relationship with industry, CAPCA and local PCAs, he says “In Santa Cruz County we have an excellent working relationship… Whether it is a matter of helping our industry determine the export requirements to export strawberries to a new country or working with a PCA to clarify information on a pesticide label, we work together to reach our mutual objective of promoting and supporting agriculture. Our staff is always available to work with industry and PCAs to help answer questions or clarify requirements for any of the programs we oversee.”

One of the local programs Mr. Hidalgo sees as valuable to the community and industry is the local non-profit Agri-Culture (www.agri-culture.us) which offers the educational program ‘Focus Agriculture’. “The program offers community leaders the opportunity to learn about the many different aspects of agriculture from production and labor to environment and technology. The program includes seminars, farm tours and hands on experience over a nine-session intensive course that takes place once per month.”

When considering highlights of his career so far, Juan Hidalgo values the opportunity to assist growers with future changes impacting agriculture, and continuing to serve growers and the community in his new role.