Fiona Ma for State Assembly

City lawmaker visits the country

PALO CEDRO, Calif. -- In a small office at a bee-breeding facility here one recent afternoon, class was in session.

The student was Fiona Ma, the California Assembly's majority whip. The subject was how bees and pollination enable the state's almonds and other crops to flourish.

For Ma, a Democrat from San Francisco, the visit to Wooten's Golden Queens capped off the latest in about a dozen trips she's made to rural parts of the state to learn about agriculture.

"I never thought it would be as fascinating as it is," she said. "We produce about 500 commodities in California. My goal is to see as much as I can."

Ma's desire to leave the city lights behind and get a first-hand look at commercial farming operations is perhaps unique among urban lawmakers who are often accused of not knowing or caring about agriculture.

With a background in accounting, Ma said she wanted to learn as much as she could about different aspects of California life during her time in the Assembly. She's in her second two-year term and could serve as many as three under the state's term limits.

At the beginning of this legislative session, Ma asked to be assigned to new committees and was put in the Agriculture Committee. To educate herself, she's visited dairies, poultry farms, livestock auction yards and other ag operations.

Before touring Wooten's on Oct. 16, Ma went to the Shasta Livestock Auction Yard in Cottonwood, Calif., where she spoke to ranchers about issues facing the beef industry.

Local industry representatives were only too happy to oblige her.

"She obviously does not come from an agricultural background but is in a leadership position in the Assembly and shows the potential for future leadership in the state," said Ned Coe, an area representative for the California Farm Bureau Federation, who accompanied Ma on her latest visits.

"This is an opportunity that has come our way and we're taking full advantage of it," he said.

Ma said the field trips have given her a new perspective on legislation. For instance, she softened her stance against the use of methyl iodide after realizing that farmers lack alternatives, she said.

Her bill to create a California Blueberry Commission was initially ridiculed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the governor signed the legislation this month.

Several pressing issues remain for agriculture, she said, including the need to get more water to parched Central Valley farms. She said it's an issue of "food security," noting that food imported from other countries doesn't always meet the production standards that California employs.

Ma said it's a good idea for urban lawmakers to get out to rural areas and become familiar with farmers' work.

"I'm encouraging farmers and Farm Bureaus to invite lawmakers from urban districts," she said. "We all have to vote. If we don't understand the basics, how are we going to vote on it?

"What I love about it is the farmers are just so passionate about what they do," she said. "They're not just making a profit. With many of them, (the farm has) been in the family for generations.