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County Imposes Medfly Quarantine : Growers Battle the Pest With Information

October 06, 1994|JULIE FIELDS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If there was one thing Ventura County farmers and fruit packers wanted to avoid in the face of a Medfly crisis, it was the flurry of protests and legal battles touched off by the pest's appearance in Riverside County eight months ago.

Believing education was the best antidote to such controversy, the county's farming industry in February launched the Ventura County Fruitfly Action Cooperative Task Force, or FACT, to teach the public about the dangers of the crop-eating fly.

In speeches to service clubs, city councils and county supervisors, the group warned it was only a matter of time before the Medfly arrived. When that happened, aerial spraying of malathion would be a safe and effective option for killing the pest, they said.

"What we have tried to head off is a reaction from people not knowing what this all meant," said Bob Tobias, operations manager of Mission Produce in Oxnard and a task force member.

In Riverside County earlier this year, Corona city officials sued the state to block malathion spraying after residents expressed fears about blanket use of the pesticide.

"Some of the elected officials just didn't know anything going in and when the crisis hit them, they didn't know how to react," Tobias said.

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To fund their campaign and hire a full-time executive director, the group raised $50,000 from growers, packinghouses and organizations such as the Citrus Research Board, the California Avocado Commission and the California Strawberry Commission.

"Ventura is actually the role model for this," said Steve Peirce, a manager with Calavo Growers of California who is trying to organize similar volunteer groups in San Diego and Santa Barbara counties.

And though they hoped the day would never come, task force members were prepared when word came last week that the first wild Medflies had been trapped in the county.

Following a crisis plan written only two weeks ago, Elisabeth Brokaw, the group's executive director, alerted local growers and began distributing information about potential impacts to the county.

"We're really seeing--no pun intended--the fruits of our labor," she said. "It's fortunate we started the group when we did."

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Members of the task force say it is difficult to measure the impact of the speeches they have made and the pamphlets and videos they have distributed.

Thus far, most of the elected leaders who represent the Camarillo area support aerial spraying of malathion if needed--a tactic that has sparked controversy in other Southern California communities.

Once the spraying was ordered in Riverside County, helicopters were loaded under military guard because of concerns about sabotage attempts.

Ventura County Supervisor Maggie Kildee, who represents much of the area covered by the quarantine, credits the task force with curbing Medfly hysteria by supplying information ahead of time.

"I felt very good about the fact that the farmers were putting together an information packet to help those of us who live in cities understand," she said.

"They're good stewards of the land," she said. "When they finally say this area may need to be sprayed, they know what they're talking about."

But not everyone agrees.

Corey Deeter, a member of the Conejo Valley Organic Garden Club, said she opposes aerial spraying and disputed much of what the task force has said. Outlining the arguments of anti-spraying groups, Deeter said malathion has not proven to be effective and raises serious health questions.

"FACT is not giving the facts," she said.

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Brokaw, who works out of an office in Ventura donated by the county Farm Bureau, said she expects such objections to grow louder if spraying becomes necessary.

Meanwhile, the group faces a barrage of speaking requests, including one tonight at St. John's Seminary near Camarillo where the first two Medflies were found.

For her part, Brokaw said she has had little time to worry about the fact that her six-month contract expires at the end of the month.

"I've been totally unworried about it and now I know why," she said. "I just had a feeling something was going to happen."

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