Fresno, Tulare county ag officials enjoy rivalry – and love. Now they’re both retiring

Fresno and Tulare County Ag Commissioners, husband and wife, Les and Marilyn Wright talk about the unusual situation of their marriage

Retiring Fresno and Tulare County Ag Commissioners, husband and wife, Les and Marilyn Wright talk about their marriage, their “45-minute” rule, & suspicions raised by people seeing them together at conferences, not knowing they’re married.
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Retiring Fresno and Tulare County Ag Commissioners, husband and wife, Les and Marilyn Wright talk about their marriage, their “45-minute” rule, & suspicions raised by people seeing them together at conferences, not knowing they’re married.

For the longest time, people in farming wondered why the Fresno and Tulare county agricultural commissioners would often be seen together at meetings and events.

Was it coincidence, were they conspiring, job hunting, maybe? Turns out, none of that was true. These two ag leaders from rival counties were dating.

As Les Wright, Fresno County agricultural commissioner, tells it, he and Marilyn Kinoshita, the agricultural commissioner from Tulare County, were sharing a ride from Visalia to Fresno after a pest control meeting when they discovered a mutual interest in each other.

That was 15 years ago. “And we have been together ever since,” said Wright.

They married last year and are preparing to retire. They bought 480 acres of range land in Nebraska where they will build a new home. Wright, 62, retired Jan. 25 and Kinoshita, 57, who has changed her last name to Wright, retires on March 29. The search is on for their replacements.

Both said they will miss their staffs, the people they’ve met in the ag business and the role of protecting one of the Valley’s major industries. They will even miss their friendly rivalry of which county is the top producer of the year.

For years, Fresno County reigned as the undisputed king of agriculture, with Tulare County often the runner-up. When it came time to report the final gross value, both refused to tell the other how they did. They are obligated to report the final numbers to their respective board of supervisors first before releasing the information to the public. Each would ask the other for the number, but neither would tell.

“I didn’t trust him,” Marilyn Wright said, laughing.

Agriculture, and a lot more

Those who know them well say they have achieved a solid record of running complex departments with multiple layers of responsibilities.

“Few are aware of all the duties and responsibilities a California county ag commissioner must balance,” said Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. “Many here in the Valley do more than secretaries of agriculture in other states.”

Although they are called agricultural commissioners, their offices also oversee the accuracy of measuring and weighing devices in retail, maintaining extensive pesticide records, and keeping the region’s multibillion-dollar farm industry protected against damaging pests and disease.

“We have endured freezes, pest infestations and droughts,” Les Wright said. “This has not been a cakewalk.”

Fresno’s commissioners office has also been the target of protests over animal rights issues and pesticide regulations.

“There is a fine line between protecting and promoting the agriculture industry along with regulating it,” Les Wright said.

Since taking over the top job in 2013, Wright’s Fresno staff has been at the forefront of battling pest infestations including the glassy winged sharpshooter, a major threat to the grape industry; red imported fire ants; and the Asian citrus psyllid, the tiny bug that can carry the fatal citrus greening disease.

He also works closely with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to crack down on thieves hacking into card readers at gas pumps.

“There isn’t a transaction that is done, from selling a gallon of gas to a pound of hamburger, that we are not involved in,” he said.

First woman commissioner

In neighboring Tulare County, Marilyn Wright has faced her own set of challenges. Rising up through the ranks of the commissioner’s office, Wright became the first woman to earn that position. Although she says she hasn’t been treated differently in this male-dominated industry, there was that one time.

It happened when she let an outside group use the department’s conference room. One of the group’s members happened to run into Wright and asked her to make copies. She politely agreed and when she returned, the man asked if he could meet the ag commissioner.

“I looked at him and said, ‘You are looking at her,’” she said with a laugh. “You should have seen the sheepish look on his face.”

Friends of Wright know she has a good sense of humor, but she’s also known for being tough as nails when it comes to enforcing the law and protecting the county’s valuable agriculture industry.

One of her biggest accomplishments has been to stay ahead of a potential outbreak of citrus greening, which decimated Florida’s orange business. The disease, also known as huanglongbing, or HLB, has been found in Southern California, but not in the state’s top commercial citrus-growing region of Tulare County.

The county’s orange crop was valued at almost $771 million in 2017, making it the third-most valued crop in the county.

To prevent the psyllid from finding a safe place to live, Wright led the effort to bulldoze 650 acres of abandoned citrus groves.

Marilyn Wright also is credited with removing more than 113,000 pounds of outdated and unwanted pesticides in the county.

Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual in Exeter, has worked with Wright for many years and regards her as an honest and effective leader.

“We didn’t always agree on things but she always gave me the opportunity to sit down and talk about it,” Nelsen said. “Her knowledge base was second to none. She is feisty and she is funny and she did a good job and that is what is important.”

On the move

The Wrights plan to build a home in northwest Nebraska where they plan to hunt, ranch, and otherwise enjoy retirement. Marilyn Wright grew up in Nebraska and is familiar with its open spaces. She looks forward to the peace and quiet, learning how to ride a horse and playing with her “kids” Dolores, Agnes and Madison, all Yorkshire terriers.

She also wanted to make sure they were married before they moved, so they can avoid any more rumors among their new neighbors.

“Although I think they are more worried about us being from California than if we are married,” she said with a smile.