From a Nebraska farm to Tulare County Ag Commissioner, Marilyn Kinoshita’s life has always involved agriculture, and probably always will.
“I was the youngest and my mom did half the farming,” she said. “She was a product of farming parents, as my dad was, so at a young age back in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, that’s what you did, you helped out. I learned that girls can do anything boys can do, ‘cause mom was out chisel plowing in the back forty.”
Kinoshita attended the University of Nebraska and obtained her bachelor’s degree. She married a B52 radar navigator and moved around a bit landing in California at Castle Air Force Base. Learning of a job opening for a pest detector trapper in Merced County, she applied and got the job.
She also met Don Estes during a show on the base, and decided to drive down to Visalia for a makeover. For a few years, she would drive down from the base every month to have Estes do her hair. But then she and her husband parted ways.
The Move to Tulare County
Kinoshita heard of an Ag inspector trainee position with Tulare County and moved in 1993, when she landed the position.
“I worked on getting all my licenses – because there is a licensing requirement to move up the food chain,” she said, “but also a time in service. I quickly got the licenses out of the way, so that if openings did come up, I’d be ready for them.
“So, I worked in citrus, table grapes and stone fruits as an ag inspector – in packing houses at 8 o’clock at night on wet floors, and you’re squeezing orange juice – not the most glamourous, but it’s agriculture, just a very different type of Ag than I was used to growing up.
“I asked tons of questions because with my job I had to know. For example, the types of pomegranates and what their harvest period is. I don’t think I’d ever seen a pomegranate until I moved to California.
“The thing I always think of is that I didn’t know that there were two different types of oranges, even as an adult. As a Midwestern kid in a rural area, you went to the grocery store and there were oranges – but Navels and Valencias? At the store, you took what they had and, as a kid, you never paid any attention to the word Valencia – they might not even have been marked.
“I think of this now and this [Tulare County] is the number one citrus exporting county, number one dairy county – I was used to beef cattle, but nothing to the scale that we have out here. Everything is on a massive scale. California commercial Ag gets a bad rap, but, we’re feeding the world. It’s got to come from somewhere – it might as well be California – say what you will about regulations and red tape and all that – it is the safest food supply in the world.”
Kinoshita has been the county’s Ag Commissioner since February, 2010 and her duties are diverse.
“I go to packing shed dinners and Farm Bureau events – a lot of the Ag industry wants you to come and talk about regulatory updates and all that, so there are these regular meetings that occur once a year and you’ll get called and think I just did that, but it was a year ago. It really does go by fast,” she said.
“The Ag Commissioner, it doesn’t matter if you are Shasta County or San Diego or in between – while they are all so different, what you are working mostly on, is policy issues,” Kinoshita said. “We’ve got a lobbyist for the Ag Commissioners Association and a lot of times, if there is going to be a state regulation, we’re involved – trying to make it sensible. Or, when the USDA is negotiating with a foreign country, I’ve seen some work plans for shipping a certain commodity, and it is like, ‘Wait a minute, how does that work? ‘ I remember one USDA official over in Maryland that thought citrus was packed out in the field in cartons – so that’s what that work plan looked like. Back to the drawing board – helping them with the language is one of the important things that we do.
“But, here in the office – we have growers that need help and they may not know who to go to, and it may not be in my purview but I always know people who know. So, you try to get them answers.
“And sometimes, growers aren’t happy when our pesticide-use inspectors show up and do an inspection on their employees, who have their visor up, or the respiratory is down around their neck because it’s a little warm out, or that sort of thing.
“So, I learned early on – you’re not going to make everybody happy. You just try to be as pleasant as possible, even if you have to deliver some bad news.
“Just with our export program, we’ve got 25 of our inspectors that are never in this office, they’re in a satellite office and they just go back and forth to their packing sheds. If they find a problem and a certain pest of concern for Japan, or Korea, or the UK, or there wasn’t a treatment done on the commodity, or something wasn’t done right – you’ve got to give them bad news.”
Kinoshita said she has a great job. . .most days.
“I think mostly because you’re helping people,” she said. “Customer service has always been very important to me. And making sure that your staff understands that, OK, somebody called in and it’s not a question that we are directly involved in, but you can still help them.”
Her office does training constantly, she said, including pesticide-use enforcement.
“There’s an aerial applicator meeting that’s coming up in June,” she said, “so they asked the Ag commissioners to come and give them updates, because there are more and more restrictions on our pilots. Pesticide use near schools is another big one that you’ll be hearing about, probably in June, and as late as September.
“There’s going to be restrictions on any grower that happens to be around a school and more often than not, that grower was there first and they’ve plopped a school in. Cities grow, land is cheaper out in the country and schools that are out near Ag – they’re beautiful – you’ve got great surroundings for kids to learn in. But, it’s still problematic to have 50-foot tall walnut trees across the street from a school.
“Our growers, even without statewide regulation – they know if there needs to be an application, when they need to do it and more often than not that’s in the middle of the night. So, they’ve got some pretty understanding employees, or the grower themselves is doing the applications.
“Just east of here you’ve got grapes near a school – Sundale School, and they can’t use Sulphur – it’s usually dust and they go pretty fast through the fields – it’s a fungicide. When you’re making table grapes, you have to keep them healthy and pretty, and that’s just one tool in their tool chest that they can’t use because of that school. Sulphur smells.”
Life Outside of Work
Kinoshita has been married to Fresno County Ag Commissioner, Les Wright, for 10 years. They live in Visalia. She has no children of her own, and her parents have passed away. But she has brothers, and nieces and nephews, who all live in Nebraska. The couple plans on moving back there, when they both retire. Although Wright is a native Californian, “he’s fine moving to Nebraska,” she said.
“All it took was one visit – he likes to hunt – we were at a wedding of a niece, and we drove from North Platte [Nebraska] back to my parents place, and he’d keep pointing to the hundreds of deer in the flatland around the Platte River – there just like rats and they’re feeding on corn, so they’re big and fat, not like the little pygmy goat ones we have up here in the mountains. ‘Yes, yes I know,’ I told him.
“We joke about getting a longhorn and naming it Mr. Pickles. That’s our goal – have a ranch mascot. And, probably a miniature horse. But, I’m really a fan of draft horses – I grew up with them. You’d go to the Nebraska State Fair and they’d have barn after barn of them. They were all braided up [the manes and tails], and that was just fascinating to me as a little kid.
Kinoshita has a hobby of growing orchids.
“I like buying orchids that are done blooming from big box stores,” she said. “I bring them home and I take all the sphagnum out with a chopstick, repot them and wait a year for them to re-bloom. That’s my hobby.
“I have had one greenhouse for about five years, and then I bought another one. My husband and I put it up about four months ago and it’s full now. And, it’s a much nicer greenhouse. So at different times of the year, something’s always blooming. But, I don’t necessarily bring them indoors – sometimes I do. But, I also just like to hang out there on a Saturday and go, ‘oh, you’re pretty.’”
She also has friends who call upon her for orchid advice.
“They will bring me these really sorry-looking, usually phalaenopsis and so, I’ll say, ‘you need to cut it off here and take it back home, and you’re watering it too much.’ But, a lot of times I will take them home, and attempt to give them back to them blooming.”
Something else she has that most people don’t, she said, are pet tarantulas. Their names are Morticia and Pink Floyd.
“Pink Floyd is relatively new,” she said. “She’s jet black with pink toes. Each of her legs is pink. I don’t know how that happens. She’s quiet feisty.
“Morticia is about nine years old. You have to be committed for the long-term. But they are absolutely fascinating, especially when they molt. I had one – she died of old age – her name was Trixie, and I would come home and say, ‘where’s Trixie.’ You’d pick up the water dish and she’s just under there, and her little suit is next to her, because she had molted.
She also has a Yorkshire terrier.
“I’m kind of a terrier person, I’ve always had little, high-maintenance dogs,” she said.
Her other hobbies include writing and cooking.
“I have the computer skills of a Baby Boomer, but I know how to write really well. I like writing articles. It’s nice that when you’re writing about some of the problems that our growers face – here in this county you don’t have to worry about offending people.
“There’s an Ag commissioner over on the coast, and he’s routinely called a baby killer, just because he has the anti-pesticide crowd. It’s a very strong voice there, even at the city council and board of supervisors’ level. Having a really supportive board of supervisors is pretty key in agriculture.”
She added that she feels she has great support in Tulare County from its board of supervisors.
“I travel for the job a lot, so I don’t necessarily like traveling [for fun],” she said. “I’ve done two lobbying trips to Washington DC – that’s exhausting, but it’s important and it was fun.
“I like to cook. I’m a homebody, I don’t like going out to dinner. I cook and make a complete mess and Les cleans it up. He always says, ‘Good God, woman, are there any dishes left?’
“I make things from scratch. I’m kind of a recipe hoarder – all those magazines, with pages torn out of them.
“Back when I was an officer’s wife, a German woman taught me how to make Rolladen, which I call ‘Pickles in Bondage,’ because it’s like a thin-sliced beef, mustard, onions and a dill pickle spear – which Bohemian people love pickles anyway – that’s my upbringing. Everyone in that community was Czech. So, you roll it up and brown it and make a sauce and IT IS awesome! That’s one of my things that I make and you invite somebody over, and they ask, ‘What is this?’
Kinoshita also likes pigs and collects pig figurines and other chachkies.
“I had heart surgery,” she said. “Valve problems tend to run in my family and I had a pig valve put in, so I collect pigs.”
Oh, and, Don Estes still does her hair today.