He was not having much success staying on for the required eight seconds, and a friend suggested that he should practicing to improve his bull riding.

"Practice bull riding?" Black recalls asking friend. "Is that like practicing a train wreck?" Black switched to roping.

California agriculture’s last crisis, the outbreak of exotic Newcastle disease in poultry in Southern California, was like that train wreck no one wanted to practice.

It was not a joke like Black makes, and it took on even more ominous overtones in the wake of 911.

The exotic Newcastle outbreak that occurred a year ago was accidental, according to Dr. Richard Breitmeyer, the director of the animal health and food safety services for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

It cost $180 million to eradicate and resulted in the destruction of 3.2 million birds, mostly commercial chickens. As devastating and costly as it was, it was not a new experience for California agriculture. For years the state’s No. 1 industry has seen one exotic pest or disease threaten only to be turned back by the eradication and quarantine efforts of state and federal agricultural departments.

What made the latest threat more ominous than other threats to the state’s largest industry is that it was the first major one since 9-11.

Ag forum luncheon

Breitmeyer was one of three people who addressed the issue of food safety in a post-Sept. 11 world at the first of four ag forum luncheons at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Calif., recently.

The other two were Deputy USDA deputy agricultural secretary James Moseley and Joe Pezzini, vice president of for Ocean Mist., one of largest artichoke and vegetable shippers in California with plants on the California central coast and in Arizona.

No one said a terrorist attack on America’s food supply was inevitable, but Moseley said 9-11 was not an anomaly.

After Sept. 11, agriculture was given strategic significance in the homeland security plan as being critical to the infrastructure of America, said Moseley. USDA now has a department homeland security.

However, if terrorists attack America’s food supply, it will not attack USDA in Washington, but local food growers and processors.

The battle against terrorism will be fought in the Salinas Valley, Bakersfield, in feed lots and poultry barns, vegetable processing plants and in farmer fields.

"The response will come at the local level," said Moseley, who said USDA’s role is to provide money for beefed up laboratory capacity to quickly identify any pathogens or pests if and when terrorists strike.

The most important element in the battle against terrorism, however, is to sensitize people in agriculture to the threat of terrorism and make them aware of people who are out of place in agriculture.

Surveillance, testing

"We need surveillance, increased testing capacity and trace back capabilities," said Moseley.

Moseley said the trace back technology in the Salinas Valley vegetable industry is a model that needs to be taken to the rest of American agriculture.

Moseley said American agriculture cannot fence itself off from terrorism "nor do we need to. We just need to be extremely vigilant.

"We have come a long way since 911 and it would be far more difficult for terrorism to occur now than before 911, but I also would suggest we have a ways to go," said Moseley.

Breitmeyer said 911 shocked a nation, but even before it happened CDFA was warned that California agriculture could be a target of terrorism and were gearing up for it.

"If something (terrorism against agriculture) happens in this country, there is a very good chance it may happen in California first because of the open nature of our global society" within the state, he said.

Many of the exotic diseases and pest accidentally introduced into California over the years have originated from people traveling overseas and bringing or shipping in illegal plants or animals. Although no one has yet determined how Exotic Newcastle Disease reached California, Breitmeyer said it probably came in with smuggled exotic birds that infected commercial poultry flocks.

That crisis involved thousands of people, stretching both federal and state agricultural workforces very thin, giving Breitmeyer considerable concern about how agriculture would fare against a multiple-site attack by terrorists.

Learned logistics

One positive element in the wake of 9-11 is the involvement now of law enforcement in agricultural crises, particularly agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry.

"CDF taught us a lot about logistics" in the exotic Newcastle crisis, said the state veterinarian.

The CFDA official reinforced Moseley’s comments that it will be local officials like California’s county ag commissioners and local law enforcement agencies that will be the first to handle any terrorists acts.

"Get to know your local law enforcement officials. Tell someone if you see something that does not look right. If you are suspicious, there is probably good cause," said Breitmeyer. "Most times it turns out to be nothing, but that is better than finding out that something happened a few days later."

Pezzini said his company has long practiced stringent security in its coolers and in fields. Perimeter fences surround cooling plants and gates are across entrances to fields. Access is limited in most areas. Pumps and wells are fences and tractor drivers and irrigators have radios and are encouraged to report anything suspicious to supervisors.

All employees are trained to be aware of unusual activities or suspicious people.

"The three most important things are vigilance, awareness and training," he said.

e-mail:hcline@primediabusiness.com