CDFA Executive Staff Biographies

Christine Birdsong, Undersecretary

Christine Birdsong was appointed by Governor Newsom as Undersecretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Previously, Birdsong was Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Director of People and Culture for the Sun Valley Rice Company. She has also served as General Counsel for the National Cotton Council of America, Counsel for the Committee on Agriculture for the United States House of Representatives and Federal Government Affairs Leader for CropLife America. Birdsong earned a Juris Doctor degree from the UC College of the Law, San Francisco, and is a UC Berkeley alumni.

Rachael O’Brien, Deputy Secretary
Legislative Affairs

Rachael O’Brien was appointed Deputy Secretary for Legislative Affairs of the California Department of Food and Agriculture by Governor Brown in June 2018. Rachael was previously appointed as Assistant Secretary in December 2017. Prior to joining CDFA, Rachael served as Manager of Government Affairs at the Agricultural Council of California, representing approximately 15,000 farmers across the state, ranging from small, farmer-owned businesses, to some of the world’s best-known brands. Rachael also served as a Legislative Advocate for Gonzalez, Quintana & Hunter, LLC, focusing on energy, water, climate and air quality policy. Rachael also worked as an Associate for EcoConsult, an environmental consulting firm, and held an internship position with then-Assemblymember Skinner’s Capitol office. Rachael is a graduate of California State University, Monterey Bay.

Michael Flores, Deputy Secretary

Michael Flores has been appointed Deputy Secretary at the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Flores has been a Political Consultant since 2019. He was Senior Advisor for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association from 2005 to 2019. He served in multiple positions in the Office of Governor Gray Davis from 1999 to 2003, including Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Director of Administration. Flores was President and Commissioner of the California Fish and Game Commission from 2000 to 2007, Chairman of the Wildlife Conservation Board in 2001 and Chief of Staff for the Office of Lieutenant Governor Gray Davis from 1997 to 1999.

Virginia Jameson, Deputy Secretary
Climate and Working Lands

Virginia Jameson has been appointed Deputy Secretary for Climate and Working Lands at the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Jameson has been Climate and Conservation Program Manager at the California Department of Conservation since 2018. She was Deputy State Director for the American Farmland Trust from 2015 to 2018, Natural Resources and Sustainable Development Program Coordinator for the American University School of International Service in 2014 and Graduate Admissions Office Student Assistant for the American University School of Communications in 2014. Jameson was a Management Specialist for the Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office in 2012, a Board Aide for Monterey County Office of District 4 Supervisor Jane Parker from 2011 to 2012 and Associate Director for Girls Incorporated of the Central Coast in 2011. She was Associate Director of the Ag Land Trust from 2009 to 2011, where she was a Conservation and Development Analyst from 2007 to 2009. Jameson earned a Master of Arts degree in International Affairs and Natural Resources and Sustainable Development from American University.

Arima Kozina, Deputy Secretary
Administration and Finance

Arima Kozina was appointed as Deputy Secretary for Administration and Finance in 2022. Kozina previously served as special assistant to the Office of the Secretary working on interagency climate initiatives, strategic planning, and internal process improvement efforts. Prior to state service, she was a senior consultant with the MarkeTech Group where she provided marketing research and business managements expertise to Fortune 500 MedTech companies. She also leveraged her project and change management skills in roles at Sierra Energy, the Committee on Sustainability Assessment, and WEAVE Inc. Kozina earned a Master of Business Administration from the University of California, Davis.

Haig Baghdassarian, Deputy Secretary
Chief Counsel

Haig Baghdassarian has been appointed Deputy Secretary and Chief Counsel at the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Baghdassarian has been Principal for the Law Office of Haig Baghdassarian since 2009. He was Chief Legislative Consultant for the Armenian National Committee of America – Western Region from 2013 to 2018, Contract Attorney for Meyers Nave LLP in 2008 and Legislative Coordinator for the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission in 2007. Baghdassarian served as a Deputy City Attorney in the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office from 2004 to 2006 and a San Francisco Human Rights Commissioner from 2001 to 2004. Baghdassarian earned a Juris Doctor degree from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

Annette M. Jones, D.V.M., State Veterinarian
Director – Animal Health and Food Safety Services

Dr. Jones graduated with honors from U.C. Davis with a degree in Economics and worked as a business manager for a defense contractor and an engineering firm for the first eight years of her career, after which she returned to U.C. Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, and again graduated at the top of her class. After practicing as a private veterinarian for three years, she joined the California Department of Food and Agriculture in 2001. She participated in California’s foot and mouth disease prevention and preparedness efforts in 2001, avian influenza control and eradication in 2002, and Exotic Newcastle disease eradication in 2002 and 2003. She consistently demonstrated an ability to work cooperatively with other government agencies, the public, and industry as seen during emergency animal disease planning efforts at the local, State, and Federal level. Dr. Jones showed her willingness to accept challenge during the response to Exotic Newcastle disease in Southern California, where she was the Incident Commander and Area Commander for the State. The response involved multiple local, State, and Federal agencies with up to 1,500 people on the ground at one time. On July 1, 2004, Dr. Jones was appointed Director of the Animal Health and Food Safety Services. In this capacity, she oversees an annual budget of $45.5 million and 222 employees engaged in programs for animal health, milk and dairy food safety, meat and poultry inspection, and livestock identification. She also works closely with the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System, which is operated by U.C. Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, under a contract with her Division. In this capacity, she has implemented organizational changes to meet the demands of shrinking budgets yet remain effective in the most critical mission areas; was part of the management team for several disease outbreaks and food and feed contamination events; provided radio and television interviews in support of farmers and ranchers and the work done to maintain a vibrant and safe food supply; collaborated with federal, state and local agencies; and provided testimony at several legislative sessions. In September of 2010, besides continuing to perform as Director, Dr. Jones was appointed State Veterinarian, the position ultimately responsible for the State’s veterinary authority on animal health and food safety related to livestock and poultry.

Dr. Tawny Mata, Director
Office of Environmental Farming and Innovation

Dr. Tawny Mata has pursued a lifelong goal of contributing to sustainability through science. In 2013, Dr. Mata was awarded an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellowship at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Office of the Chief Scientist. During her tenure as an AAAS Fellow and later as the USDA Partnership Coordinator for the U.S. Pollinator Health Task Force, Dr. Mata worked on several major initiatives to protect wildlife, build climate resilience, and enhance food security. In 2016, she joined the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research as a Scientific Program Director, and continued through 2017 as a consultant, managing a grant portfolio that spanned education, conservation, and plant health with an aim of finding evidence-based, practical solutions to challenges in food and agriculture. In 2017, Dr. Mata accepted a position as Director of Strategic Engagement for The Nature Conservancy and the Great Lakes Commission's Blue Accounting Initiative, where she led an external affairs team to promote collaborative, data-informed management of water resources across the eight states, two provinces, and two countries in the Great Lakes Basin. In 2021, she joined the California Department of Water Resources as an Environmental Program Manager supporting the sound management of native and endangered species impacted by the State Water Project, and in 2022 she was promoted to the position of Director of the Office of Environmental Farming and Innovation (OEFI) at the California Department of Food and Agriculture. OEFI leads California's efforts in reducing livestock methane emissions, promoting healthy soils, and reducing agricultural water and energy use. Dr. Mata received her B.A. in Biology from Pomona College and her Ph.D. in Ecology from UC Davis.

Thea Rittenhouse, Farm Equity Advisor

Thea Rittenhouse fills a position created by the Farmer Equity Act, a bill authored by Assemblymember Aguiar-Curry that supports socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers in California. The Act will ensure that CDFA includes socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers in the development, adoption and implementation of programs and policies.