PALM SPRINGS — The state's growers are under siege as a result of national concerns about potentially dangerous pesticides residues as well as the prospect of deliberate sabotage attempts on produce.
In light of the current crisis, the industry's future was much on the minds of those attending the California Table Grape and Tree Fruit League's annual meeting here.
The group represents growers who produce 90% of the state's peach, nectarine, plum and table grape crops. Those present marveled at the events of the last three weeks in which apples were removed from school menus and Chilean produce vanished from store shelves. Then, at the week's end, they witnessed federal agencies endorse both commodity groups as safe to consume, but only after significant damage to the produce's wholesome image.
"Things have never been this bad to my knowledge," said Kent H. Stephens, with Delano-based Marko Zaninonwich, Inc. "The confidence in our product has been shaken."
While scrambling to respond to public fears, some producers are also reassessing whether chemically dependent farming methods need to be changed. Proposals for dealing with the food tampering threat seem to be more elusive.
The growers are operating with a sense of urgency as the year's first harvest of California grapes and deciduous fruit begins in May.
In an emotional speech, one San Joaquin Valley farmer warned his colleagues that their livelihoods were at stake.
"In the past, people regarded the food supply as sacred. Apparently, that's no longer the case," said Sarkis V. Sarabian, the league's chairman, who also owns orchards and vineyards in Sanger. "The public has become dismayed."
Sarabian called on the league and other agriculture interest to prepare an organized response in the event any future tampering occurs with California produce.
"The ripple effect of this (the Chilean grape poisoning) may come down to us. We need a plan to protect our livelihood . . . Some day if we become the prey, then we can act accordingly," he said.
As for the issue of pesticide residues on fruit, Sarabian urged growers to voluntarily document and disclose to their customers the chemicals used on crops.
Such an idea may have exonerated many of the nation's apple growers, including those in California, who do not use daiminozide, a suspected carcinogen sold as Alar. This important distinction was lost on the public during the ongoing dispute over the chemical's presence on apples.
"The entire food safety issue has become so volatile," he said. "Never before have we been so scrutinized by government labs, private labs and the labs of watchdog groups. . . . We need to counter the tactics of our critics."
As if the problems of harmful residues and sabotage were not enough, a consumer activist who spoke to the league reminded growers that they personally faced an increased likelihood of cancer because of workplace exposure to agriculture chemicals.
"Farmers have a cancer risk that is six times greater than that for the general public," said Craig Merrilees, with the Consumer Pesticide Protection Project in San Francisco.
He urged growers to reject the status quo and initiate changes in the use of pesticides and other compounds on food.
"There is more bad news coming," said Merrilees. "The Alar (residue on apples) situation will be repeated over and over again. Consumers want less residues on food."
One Madera-based farmer said that California's growers have already altered their views on chemicals.
"We are more sensitive and aware of what is applied to our products," said Nat M. DiBuduo Jr., a vineyard owner and farm consultant. "We're more informed and the industry is more willing to provide information to consumers (about what we use.) Even so, there remain some conflicts."
Another Delano-based grower, Richard Widhalm, said that every grower would like to cut back on the use of pesticides. But they have been repeatedly told by state and federal officials that their methods are safe, he said.
"We're concerned and we are also concerned for our families," said Widhalm. "We not only grow this food, but we also consume it and we work with these chemicals."
However, he said, "I have three children who eat fruit and I don't feel they are at risk . . . I am at ease."
The near-panic that has swept the country in the aftermath of the Alar and Chilean grape scare makes it difficult to address these issues, said one California apple grower who farms conventionally as well as organically.
"I understand the frustrations of people who are trying to stay healthy at the same time that they are beleaguered with problems about water supplies, air quality and food," said Cathy Hemly of Greene & Hemly, Inc. in Courtland. "But this (has been) hysteria."
The growers at the meeting even received some sympathy from one of their harshest critics: Lawrie Mott, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, the environmental group that authored, "Intolerable Risk: Pesticides in Our Children's Food."