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Malathion Outcry Angers Growers in Central Valley

February 19, 1990|ASHLEY DUNN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANGER, Calif. — A cold wind blew across Sarkis Sarabian's back as he walked between a line of grapevines, which fill the landscape like rows of dark skeletons.

Four generations of Sarabians have lived on this land in the Central Valley, surviving successive invasions of powdery mildew, frost, torrential rain, root-eating nematodes, variegated leaf hoppers and any number of other pests and threats.

But on this wintry day, Sarabian stood in his field and worried about his chances of surviving a new invasion--this time from an enemy looming 200 miles away in Los Angeles.

"This may be the straw that breaks the camel's back," he said as he scratched his boot against the sandy loam of his farm.

The enemy is the Mediterranean fruit fly, a pest that is now separated from the farm-rich Central Valley--which encompasses the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys--by just the desolate peaks of the Tehachapi Mountains.

Seven months ago, when a single fly was found near Dodger Stadium, growers like Sarabian barely paid attention to the small talk about this tiny, exotic fly. It had been eradicated so many times before that everyone figured the state would do it again.

But as the months passed, the persistent spread of the bug in Southern California and the growing political opposition to aerial malathion spraying have farmers worried that it may not be so simple this time.

For growers, the battle over the Medfly has reached a disturbing point. The community opposition in Los Angeles and Orange counties to aerial spraying is both shocking and baffling to men who have sprayed crops all their lives with far more dangerous chemicals. The bevy of celebrities who have grabbed the attention of television cameras in the campaign to stop spraying has left them frustrated at their inability to fight back.

In the coffee shops, packing sheds and farmhouses scattered through the Central Valley, the farmers are beginning to murmur that this battle could be lost.

"It could get hairy," said farmer Glenn Nilmeier of Sanger. "I haven't lost any sleep yet, but it's getting there."

At stake is the economic well-being of one of the richest fruit producing areas in the world. The farms in the Central Valley's southern half alone churn out more grapes, raisins, nectarines, peaches, plums and pomegranates than any other spot in the nation. The state estimates that $5 billion in crops are in jeopardy of being infested with the fly.

The danger to these farms that cut a jagged patchwork across the Central Valley is real. During the great Northern California Medfly infestation of 1980-82, the mere perception that California fruit was infested, coupled with an abundant crop that year, sent prices plummeting. Peaches that normally sold for $6 a box dropped to $2.50.

While the '80-'82 infestation was largely concentrated around Santa Clara County, some Medflies managed to find their way to Stockton and Westley in San Joaquin County. Crops in both areas were quarantined.

If that happened in Sanger, Sarabian said, he could lose not just a business, but a life that has been passed from generation to generation.

"The people in L.A.," he said, "they just don't understand. I'm going to lose a way of life. Maybe that's nothing big to someone else, but it means something to me."

Sarabian, 57, has lived nearly all his life within a few hundred feet of where he was born. Even today, within hollering distance of his office in an old farmhouse are four generations of Sarabians, including his 88-year-old mother.

The landscape is dotted with his family's mementos. Just a stone's throw from Sarabian's window is a white mulberry tree his father planted 60 years ago with a clipping from their native Armenia. A decaying tree house built by his two sons dangles from its branches.

In his father's days, farmers battled the constant flood of insect invaders with a mask, a hand sprayer and chemicals so dangerous that even Sarabian shudders to think about them.

Now it's done with a tractor and a mechanized sprayer the size of a jet engine that can spew pesticide over 40 acres in a day.

For Sarabian, the problem in dealing with the Medfly is not killing it--that's easy, even with a hand sprayer. But if even a few flies are found in the area, it would trigger a fruit quarantine by other states and countries where 90% of his grapes and tree fruit now goes.

If an infestation occurs, "Japan wouldn't even talk to us. Taiwan is just looking for an excuse not to take our fruit," he said.

He added, "If I can't market my fruit, I walk."

Infested fruit can be fumigated with a pesticide or put in cold storage to make it acceptable for export, he said. But it costs money to build those facilities, money that the average farmer doesn't have.

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