Cal­i­for­nia straw­berry grow­ers up­set by new pol­lu­tion rules

Clean Air Act to hurt pes­ti­cide use

The Covington News - - Agriculture & Outdoors - By Ja­cob Adel­man

LOS AN­GE­LES — Edgar Terry says the big­gest threat to his hun­dreds of acres of straw­ber­ries isn’t bugs or bad weather.

In­stead, he says, it’s a new reg­u­la­tion aimed at re­duc­ing pol­lu­tion from the pes­ti­cides he uses to boost pro­duc­tion and qual­ity on his Ven­tura County farm.

Be­gin­ning this spring, Terry and other grow­ers must cut smog-caus­ing fu­mi­gant use by as much as half to help the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia county that pro­duces a quar­ter of the na­tion’s straw­ber­ries com­ply with the fed­eral Clean Air Act.

Grow­ers have few op­tions for re­place­ment crops. Only straw­ber­ries, one of the state’s most lu­cra­tive crops, make eco­nomic sense in the coastal area where land prices are rel­a­tively high.

“If you do have to let ground go fal­low, there’s no other crops to grow here,” Terry said. “It could be the death blow in some re­spects.”

Last year, Ven­tura County farm­ers har­vested nearly 12,000 acres of straw­ber­ries val­ued at more than $323 mil­lion.

As many as 7,500 acres could be stripped of pro­duc­tion as a re­sult of the pes­ti­cide cuts, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures cited by the Cal­i­for­nia En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency.

The de­creased sup­ply could push straw­berry prices higher at gro­cery stores, said Steve Blank, an agri­cul­tural econ­o­mist at the Univer­sity of Cali- for­nia, Davis.

The grow­ers are fac­ing some of the tough­est pes­ti­cide re­stric­tions ever im­posed in Cal­i­for­nia, said Glenn Brank, a spokesman for the state De­part­ment of Pes­ti­cide Reg­u­la­tion.

In the past, they have been forced to sus­pend use of some fu­mi­gants but could sub­sti­tute with oth­ers.

In Ven­tura County, how­ever, grow­ers must limit use of all ma­jor farm fu­mi­gants dur­ing the ozone-heavy months of May through Oc­to­ber, when grow­ers pre­pare soil for straw­ber­ries that hit the mar­ket in late win­ter and early spring.

“Nei­ther the fed­eral gov­ern­ment nor any other state has ever at­tempted to do any­thing like this be­fore,” Brank said.

The reg­u­la­tions stem from a 1994 state agree­ment with the fed­eral En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency to ad­here to the Clean Air Act, which called for the re­duc­tion of pes­ti­cides con­tain­ing volatile or­ganic com­pounds such as methyl bro­mide, among other mea­sures.

Pub­lic health and en­vi­ron­men­tal groups later claimed the state was not abid­ing by the rules. They filed a law­suit and won, lead­ing the state to act on the mea­sures.

Other ma­jor straw­ber­ry­grow­ing ar­eas, such as the Sali­nas Val­ley in cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia, have not been or­dered to cut fu­mi­ga­tion be­cause their pol­lu­tion tar­gets have been met.

Ven­tura County grow­ers are be­ing hit par­tic­u­larly hard be­cause the agree­ment with the fed­eral EPA re­quires pol­lu­tion cuts from 1991 lev­els, when straw­berry pro­duc­tion in the county was only about a third of what it was last year.

“We don’t feel like that’s right,” said Hec­tor Gu­tier­rez, who farms about 120 acres. “If we con­tinue to be able to farm and con­tinue to seek new al­ter­na­tives, as time goes on we’re only go­ing to get bet­ter at re­duc­ing emis­sions.”

The rules also ap­ply to other fu­mi­gated crops such as bell pep­pers and toma­toes, but those crops ac­count for only about 2,000 acres in the county.

Grower groups are ap­peal­ing the law­suit that forced the state De­part­ment of Pes­ti­cide Reg­u­la­tion to or­der the cuts. They also sued the de­part­ment, claim­ing it ne­glected to ad­e­quately con­sider al­ter­na­tives.

In ad­di­tion, the Cal­i­for­nia EPA has asked its fed­eral coun­ter­part to let the county phase in the caps over four years to al­low time for the de­vel­op­ment of lower-emis­sion meth­ods.

Still, grow­ers are re­quired to com­ply with the rules in the mean­time. They have un­til Fri­day to file re­quests for pes­ti­cide per­mits and will find out by early April ex­actly how much fu­mi­gant they will be al­lowed to use.

Farm­ers say the forced re­duc­tions could ac­tu­ally in­crease pol­lu­tion, since fal­lowed fields would in­vite de­vel­op­ment.

Lo­cal or­di­nances pro­hibit the de­vel­op­ment of farm­land in much of Ven­tura County, but as much as a third of the fu­mi­gated fields are in ur­ban spots where build­ing could be per­mit­ted, ac­cord­ing to the state EPA.

“There’s a typ­i­cal say­ing: First you grow veg­eta­bles, then you grow straw­ber­ries, then you grow houses,” grower Bill Reiman said.

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