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Budget crisis impacts agricultural marketing program

By: Gloria Young, Journal Staff Writer
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Placer County’s agricultural marketing program is in limbo — a victim of the state’s budget crisis. But the county’s Agriculture Department remains optimistic it can be salvaged. “It’s very much our desire to continue a strong agricultural marketing program in the county and have an agricultural marketing person of some sort, depending on what the budget will allow,” Josh Huntsinger, deputy agricultural commissioner, said Monday. The Board of Supervisors has been very supportive of the program, he added. The program was put on hold when marketing director Nancyjo Riekse’s contract was not renewed for the new fiscal year that began July 1. “That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be renewed,” Huntsinger said Monday. “It is a contract thing and it is year to year. Once the budget is clarified, we’ll know if (the contract) needs to be scaled back or kept at the same dollar figure.” There’s also the possibility it won’t be renewed, he said. Riekse took over the position in 2006 from longtime local agriculture advocate Joann Neft, who was in the job for five years. Riekse’s initial contract, for May 15, 2006 to June 30, 2007, gave her a salary of $69,230 plus benefits of $35,928, per a Department of Agriculture memorandum to the Board of Supervisors posted online. In January of this year, Riekse received a five-month contract extension for the remainder of the 2008-09 fiscal year, listing $18,600 in salary and $14,417 in benefits. It represented a cut of 25 percent in pay and work hours, according to an online memorandum. Among the long list of duties for the job are publishing the annual farm trails guide, promoting local agriculture events and interacting with farmers, ranchers and the public to promote locally grown agricultural products. Neft now devotes her time to running her businesses and writing a cookbook that will spotlight year-round meals from locally grown produce and meats. She said she’s pleased with the progress made in the eight years of the agricultural marketing program. “I know there’s a lot of work to be done in the program in support of agriculture,” she said. “However, I also realize that now is the time and place to tighten our belts and to make changes in the way we’re doing business in Placer County. That’s apparent to me.” Whatever the future level of funding may be, Neft is confident a solid foundation is in place. “The fact is that now the growers really understand the value of marketing,” she said. “They now can pick up and create their own agricultural marketing.” The budget shortfall doesn’t impact two of the county’s biggest agricultural successes — both started by Neft — the Foothill Farmers’ Market and the Mandarin Festival. The farmers’ market, which has operated for 20 years, is now directed by Carol Arnold and sells locally grown produce and other items at 10 sites each week from late spring into fall. The Roseville and Auburn markets operate one day a week year-round. The two-day Mountain Mandarin Festival, held in November in Auburn, draws thousands of visitors. A more recently created event, the Placer Farm & Barn Tour held in the fall, will take place in an abbreviated version this year, but not because of budget considerations. “The reason for that is because Cindy Fake, Placer County farm adviser, is on sabbatical and she’s the lead person putting it together,” Huntsinger said. This year’s tour will include one location each in Placer and Nevada counties. “It will be a dinner and farm tour rather than the full-blown multi-stop activity (of the past),” he said. “For 2010, we anticipate it will be back even bigger and better.” Currently the county Agriculture Department is working on putting this year’s agriculture guide — compiled by Riekse — on the Web, which should be completed in a couple of weeks, Huntsinger said. The Journal’s Gloria Young can be reached at gloriay@goldcountrymedia.com