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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on June 13th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 14 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 14

Anticipating the end

With yet another fumigant facing stricter regulations due to health risks, strawberry farmers wonder what's next

BY CAMILLIA LANHAM


Berry wars:
The most recent fight over strawberry pesticides is focused on the severity of regulations governing chloropicrin, a fumigant used in the pre-planting process.
FILE PHOTO

Black ink practically screamed “Safe Strawberries Now!” from neon pink stickers worn by attendees at a recent Santa Maria meeting to discuss the latest pesticide to face increasing regulations.

Fieldworkers and activists echoed the sentiment spelled out on their chests during the public comment period at the end of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation-led June 3 meeting. Ex-strawberry picker Estella Cortez spoke to the group through a translator.

“They would fumigate, and then they would bring us into work,” Cortez said in Spanish. “Even though we would get protection for our eyes, even then you could barely see the strawberries.”

Regulations governing pesticide use seem to have tightened considerably since Cortez was picking berries. There’s now a time lapse between fumigant application and when field workers are allowed back into the fields; chemicals like methyl bromide are being phased out; and applications are more targeted than they once were.

But pesticide-related health issues persist.

Chloropicrin, a fumigant used to rid soil of funguses and diseases before planting, is just the latest chemical to make California’s growing list of restricted-use pesticides because of health-related problems. Strawberry farmers will be the most affected because they account for 70 percent of the chloropicrin used in California. The chemical is also used for growing tomatoes, peppers, flowers, and a handful of other berries.

The June 3 meeting was the first in a series the Department of Pesticide Regulation is holding throughout the state to discuss how the chemical will be regulated due to the risks of respiratory and eye irritation issues for people exposed to it. The chemical is one of the last effective pesticides left, and as strawberry farmers tell it, more restrictions mean an uncertain economic future for their crop.

“The concern is that there will be fewer and fewer resources for farmers to use to effectively grow their products,” Claire Wineman from the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties told the Sun. “We’re putting so much pressure on our agricultural producers that it’s [going to be] no longer economically feasible to produce.”

But it’s not like the pesticide will be banished. It’s not even going to be phased out. California regulators just want more rules in place to govern how it’s used. As pesticide regulator Randy Segawa explained at the Santa Maria meeting, the new use guidelines will mainly focus on buffer zone development, which means nobody but professional chloropicrin applicators, cars, or bicyclists would be allowed in the area around a field for two weeks after the chemical is applied.

Segawa said the department hasn’t fully decided how large a buffer zone it would mandate—also a reason to get public input through the meetings—but the zone’s size would depend on how many acres are being fumigated, how the pesticide is applied to the soil, and how the area is treated after chloropicrin is in the ground.

Environmental Protection Agency labels mandate the buffer zones to be, at minimum, 25 feet on a 160-acre maximum field size per application. California pesticide regulators are proposing that the numbers be reduced to a maximum of 40 acres per application, with buffer zones at a minimum of 60 feet—and a maximum of 1,402 feet for fields without strong control measures in place to prevent chemical drift.

The proposed regulations essentially mean farmers can only treat a portion of their fields at a time, said Carolyn O’Donnell from the California Strawberry Commission.

“If farmers can’t treat the whole field, it will affect the yields,” O’Donnell said, adding that huge losses won’t happen right away, but over time. “Until the diseases really build up in the soil, you would see 70 to 80 percent [of yields the first year], the next year 30 to 40 percent, and then after three to four years, the plants will be dead.”

With farmers only making three to four cents on every dollar’s worth of berries sold to consumers, every piece of fruit counts. Lower yields could mean the difference between continuing to produce or going out of business, and the strawberry commission is in the process of looking for ways to prevent the latter.

Chloropicrin has been on the pesticide hit list since 2009, when the EPA finished a few rounds of scientific study that classified it as a toxic air contaminant because of the risk it poses to people exposed to it. The EPA then set new label guidelines that included restricting the acreage on which it could be applied, increasing buffer zones, and changing reporting methods.

The California Department of Pesticide Regulation began its own course of scientific study after the EPA released its results. Based on those studies, the department decided there was a need for even stricter chloropicrin application requirements in the state.

“We’re special in California,” O’Donnell said. “Most states accept the EPA’s regulations as their own, but California doesn’t. They go above and beyond.”

And that, O’Donnell said, is a good thing; the highest priority should be human safety. She added that many county agricultural commissioner offices already practice the newly proposed regulations when shelling out permits for pesticide application.

“People like to live where strawberries like to grow,” O’Donnell said. “With that comes a lot of restrictions and regulations to be put on those fields.”

The way things are headed in the pesticide world, there might eventually come a time when none can be used. The Department of Pesticide Regulation is working with the California Strawberry Commission to prepare for the day when there won’t be chemicals to help, or it becomes too expensive to make growing worth the effort. Together, the agencies are exploring new growing techniques to produce the red berry.

So far, though, those techniques are too expensive, use too much material, need too much attention, or just don’t produce the strength of fruit needed to make it to grocery store shelves.

“Non-fumigant growing is not ready for prime-time,” O’Donnell said. “In the meantime, they have very few tools available to them, and chloropicrin is one of them.”

To learn more about the Department of Pesticide Regulation’s proposal, visit cdpr.ca.gov/docs/whs/chloropicrin.htm. The public comment period ends on July 31. Comments can be submitted to Linda O’Connell at loconnell@cdpr.ca.gov or by calling (916) 445-1717 for more information.

Contact Staff Writer Camillia Lanham at clanham@santamariasun.com.