Henry Voss, Ex-Chief of Agriculture Agency, Dies


Henry J. Voss, a farmer who rose to the state’s top agricultural post only to resign amid legal conflicts last year, has died in what appeared to be an accidental drowning in his backyard swimming pool. He was 63.

Voss died Saturday at his home in Ceres. A spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation told The Times that Voss was on his way to the grill to barbecue dinner when he apparently fell and struck his head, drowning in his pool.

An autopsy was scheduled for today, said Farm Bureau spokesman Clark Biggs.

In April 1995, Voss ended his six-year tenure as secretary of the Department of Food and Agriculture--the governor’s main link to the $19-billion-a-year California farming industry--after disclosures that he had failed to reveal agriculture income on state-required annual statements.


Although Voss denied any intentional wrongdoing, he agreed to pay a $21,000 fine recommended by the Fair Political Practices Commission.

The commission, however, reopened its probe in May after state officials revealed 23 additional boxes of documents and more than 100 audiotapes of meetings that may relate to department actions affecting Voss’ personal agricultural holdings.

The status of that investigation in the wake of Voss’ death is not known.

Voss was popular with farmers, who either knew him personally or knew of his fight against state regulations that farmers saw as burdensome. He was also known for promoting California crops throughout the country and the world.

He was appointed to the post first by Gov. George Deukmejian in 1989, and again by Gov. Pete Wilson when Wilson took office in 1991.

A farmer since 1961, Voss served as president of the California Farm Bureau Federation from 1982 to 1989. Wilson issued a statement Sunday calling Voss “a farmer’s farmer” and a dedicated public servant.

“Hank came from the farm and understood better than any man I know the unique interaction between the earth, the environment and man,” Wilson said.


Voss’ successor, Ann M. Veneman, praised his leadership “through tremendous challenges, including severe budget cuts, drought and other natural disasters.”

Voss, the eldest of three brothers, was born into a farming family that had worked the land around San Jose since the 1800s. After Voss was born, his family, like many Santa Clara Valley farmers, moved east as the developers moved in. The Voss family settled in Ceres, near Modesto.

Voss expanded the farm’s operations, eventually tilling more than 200 acres of peach, plum, walnut and almond trees near Ceres and Hughson, and other orchards in Merced County.

Most of his outside income during his time in Sacramento came from the cooperatives that processed and packed his harvest--at least $10,000 annually from each of many companies, including Del Monte, Tri Valley Growers, Blue Diamond, Sunsweet and Smuckers, as well as other, smaller enterprises.

Voss ran into trouble because at the same time he was collecting his harvest checks, the state Department of Food and Agriculture he headed took action in regard to companies with which the Voss farm had business.

He acknowledged not reporting $420,000 in income that his farming businesses received from firms he was charged with regulating, but said he had no conflicts of interest.


The commission in April dismissed its original conflict-of-interest charges after finding no evidence of conflicts.

But in May, the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission agreed to take a renewed look at conflict-of-interest complaints levied against Voss after examining records obtained by two advocacy groups.

Common Cause of California and Consumers Union had charged Voss with awarding $755,000 in state contracts to major agribusiness corporations in 1989 and 1990 while at the same time doing private business with the firms.

Voss continued to deny any wrongdoing.


Although the commission staff recommended the $21,000 fine against Voss for failing to report the income, it postponed approving the settlement until the newer investigation was settled.

Shortly after Voss took his state post, the Department of Food and Agriculture made agreements with several food companies to market their products overseas. The two consumer groups charged that between 1989 and 1992, the program--which since has been abandoned--awarded Blue Diamond Growers $100,000, Sunsweet Growers $112,000, and Tri Valley Growers $98,000, to pay for air fare, hotels, meals and incidentals during the overseas trips.

At the news conference announcing his resignation, Voss blamed the omissions in his personal reporting on bad advice given him when he took office in 1989. He said the department operated under an “honor system” that involved no written record.


“We’ve hired honorable people,” Voss said. “We’ve used common sense. We’ve trusted each other’s good judgment. We’ve always put the good of the whole above any one part.”

His appointment to the state agriculture job was almost scuttled before it began because of his support for using controversial pesticides, including malathion.

Urban residents in Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties knew Voss as a staunch supporter of battling the Mediterranean fruit fly with malathion spraying, which critics said endangered the health of both farm workers and residents.

He also was criticized for approving two pesticides, aldicarb and parathion, in spite of evidence they pollute California’s ground water.

These issues emerged in his 1990 confirmation hearings, and Voss won the Senate’s confirmation by one vote, with Republicans not wanting to oppose Deukmejian and Democrats loath to oppose Voss’ farming friends.

At the time, Voss said he continued to believe the spraying was safe, and was upset only that he had failed in his mission to convince the public of it.


“I can sympathize with people and their concerns,” Voss said after the Senate Rules Committee narrowly approved his appointment. “My real concern is there is so much bad information out there and I haven’t been able to find a way to counter that.”

When he reappointed Voss, Wilson simultaneously stripped the department of its authority to register pesticides and monitor their use, although the department retained the authority to conduct aerial malathion spraying.

Voss is survived by his wife, Carol, five children, 12 grandchildren and one great-grandchild, all of whom live in California.