Fiona Ma for State Assembly

SF legislator makes valley farming a priority

At last report, San Francisco had just three acres in agriculture, most of it nursery plants.

But the city has produced a state lawmaker with a strong interest in the farming that goes on around Modesto and beyond.

Democrat Fiona Ma serves on the Assembly Agriculture Committee. She often deals with people from farming regions whose politics tend to be more conservative than hers.

Ma nonetheless has cultivated respect from these colleagues, by visiting farms and food processors, and asking a lot of questions.

"For a legislator from San Francisco, she has been a pretty solid vote for agriculture," said committee colleague Bill Berryhill, R-Ceres. This urban-rural link is intriguing in light of the recent interest among city dwellers in the sources of their food — and whether it is produced responsibly.

Their views, and the actions of the lawmakers they elect, could affect the food and wine industries at the core of the Northern San Joaquin Valley economy.

Ma discussed her work during a phone interview Wednesday from Sacramento. She had just taken part in Ag Day at the Capitol, wearing a red cowgirl hat as she stood at a podium.

"A lot of the myths have been dispelled in my mind about agriculture," she said. Among them were that farmers waste water, spray pesticides carelessly and mistreat their workers.

Ma, a tax accountant by training, admits to knowing little about farming when she first was elected in 2006. She said she became interested while fighting a state plan to close the Cow Palace, an exhibition hall in her district that holds rodeos and other events.

Ma snagged an ag committee appointment and took the first of about 70 tours to farm country. She has been to rice fields, almond orchards, avocado groves and nurseries. She has seen a gin process cotton and a crop-duster spray fields.

Berryhill, a wine grape grower, brought Ma to the Modesto area to meet with cattle ranchers and to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to talk water. Committee member Kristen Olsen, R-Modesto, took Ma on a Tuolumne County tour that included Tulloch Reservoir, which stores some of the north valley's irrigation water.

This does not mean that Ma and these GOP lawmakers will agree anytime soon on taxes, health care, prisons, education or the many other issues they face.

"Certainly, there are a number of areas where we have differences of opinion on issues," Olsen said, "but she and I have worked together in areas where we do agree."

Crossing party lines

Ma supports deferring estate taxes on land that stays in farming, preserving farmland through Williamson Act property tax breaks and increasing off-stream water storage.

She said party labels tend to fade when it comes to ag committee business.

"I actually disagree more with my Democratic members who have not gone out and seen what we are voting on," she said.

Ma's district takes in the western and southern parts of San Francisco and the northernmost part of San Mateo County. Republicans made up just 11 percent of the voter rolls at the last election.

Although it is short on farms, San Francisco has 20 farmers markets, supplied in part by Modesto-area growers.

"In San Francisco what they are concerned about is fresh fruit and vegetables," Ma said.

At the same time, she said, she sees the value of farm exports, important especially for nut growers.

Term limits will force Ma from office at the end of this year. She plans to run in 2014 for the California State Board of Equalization, which oversees sales taxes.

For now, she is happy to keep up her work as a self-styled "urban cowgirl."

"I don't want to have to import my food," Ma said, "and that's why I'm so passionate about this issue."