Serving Essentially Through Crisis

Written By: Andrew Smith, Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner
Published: May 1, 2020

These are very dynamic and rapidly changing times as our county reacts to the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) community health crisis. As the Sonoma County Department of Agriculture/Weights & Measures (AWM), it is our job to provide essential services necessary to keep agriculture going and to advocate for our stakeholders to ensure that agriculture is acknowledged as an essential function in our community. As the County drafts and disseminates the Shelter in Place orders, we want everyone we serve to know that we are here to help. Providing essential services to our stakeholders is not something new to AWM or to Sonoma County. We have had our share of disasters and crises over the past few years. Through these experiences, county administration and AWM have become adept at focusing County functions and services on those that are essential to human health and habitation, and ensuring commerce and agriculture can continue to operate.

This administrative agility has proven effective over time as the County and, specifically, AWM is able to re-direct staff and resources to provide these essential functions, or to release staff to fulfill our other role in public service as disaster service workers. We can do this quickly too! We went from normal county functions on Monday, March 16th, to closing our office to the public and releasing staff for telework from home and shifts at the Emergency Operations Center by noon on Tuesday, March 17th. This is all made possible through a very well-coordinated process called the Continuity of Operations Plan. Continuity planning is a fundamental responsibility of public institutions and private entities to effectively and appropriately serve the needs of our communities. We have an obligation to provide municipal services in our unincorporated areas and to act as administrative agents for state and federal programs and services. AWM pledges to ensure essential functions are performed efficiently with minimal disruption, especially during times of emergency or crisis.

We currently have nearly all of our staff teleworking from home with limited staff providing essential in-field services to our community. The essential functions we continue to provide include:

  • Land use permitting for vineyard, orchard, and other land use development projects
  • Phytosanitary certification of plant material being exported out of the county to both domestic and international consignees
  • Pesticide regulatory work including responding to complaints, issuing operator identification numbers and restricted materials permits, reviewing notices of intent, processing pest control business registrations, investigating and resolving exposure and drift incidents, and enforcing pesticide use requirements
  • Pest exclusion activities including inspecting all incoming plant materials at shipping point terminals (UPS and FedEx) nurseries
  • Wildlife services activities
  • Weights & Measures work including handling and responding to complaints of fuel contamination, over-charges, and price gouging, and responding to issues associated with weighing or measuring devices essential to food distribution and/or transportation systems

AWM is concerned with the health and well-being of our staff as they are our greatest asset. Humans by nature are gregarious creatures and we want to ensure that our staff remain engaged and stay as positive as possible given the circumstances. We write an email each day to all staff to say hello and to check in with daily anecdotes, inspiring stories, and reassurance. It is really important that we do all we can to establish and maintain routines and to stay grounded and calm during this health crisis. We are doing everything we can as a department to take this all in stride. We as a community cannot let this health crisis blow us off course. We must try to focus on getting through the difficult patches with forethought, patience, and courage. By keeping a steady pace through adversity, it will help us all remain centered and in all probability, we will get through these difficult times. One thing I have shared with staff that I feel is of benefit to anyone living through this COVID-19 health crisis is what has been referred to as the Stockdale Paradox. It comes from my favorite book on business, Good to Great, by Jim Collins and I feel it is particularly relevant. Admiral James B. Stockdale was the highest-ranking US soldier imprisoned during the Vietnam War. While held captive in a prison camp for seven years, he was tortured repeatedly. When asked after he had made it out how he was able to cope, he said:

“I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end. And turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which in retrospect, I would not trade.”

When author Jim Collins asked Admiral Stockdale who did not make it out, the Admiral replied, “Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Admiral Stockdale went on to say, “This is a very important lesson.  You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

The Stockdale Paradox teaches us that confronting the brutal reality is vital to success and that we must balance realism with optimism if we are to make it out successfully.

We all feel vulnerable right now and it is okay to be wary and fearful about what is going on in our community, our state, our nation, and the world over. But we cannot let it change who we are and how strong we have become as a county. We have seen our fair share of calamity and we have become stronger and more resilient together. So as you do your best to take this all in stride, please remember that all of us here at the Department of Agriculture/Weights & Measures are here to help and to serve the agricultural community through this time, essentially!

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