A voracious disease-carrying insect, the glassy-winged sharpshooter, has gone from mere annoyance to major disaster, throwing the Ventura County Agricultural Commission into chaos, costing growers millions of dollars and pitting farmer against farmer.
"Just when I think things cannot get any worse, they get worse," said Earl McPhail, county agricultural commissioner. "I'm spending 80% of my staff time on this program. I can't afford to do that, but I don't see any light at the end of the tunnel."
McPhail told the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that he had gone through about $93,000 of the $267,000 grant the state gave the county to help battle the bug. He says he will ask the state for 14 more inspectors and three minivans to carry them around the county at a cost of about $344,000.
The needle-nosed sharpshooter carries bacteria that cause Pierce's disease, which clogs a plant's water-conducting tissue, causing it to whither and blow away. Grapevines are especially susceptible to the disease and southern farmers accuse northern grape growers of using their political clout to bring about harsher regulations of the insect.
Local inspectors must examine every leaf of every plant--except cut flowers--for sharpshooter eggs before they leave the county. In some cases, that means looking through 100,000 leaves. Even trees destined for export are flipped on their sides so that inspectors can pore over them.
After being examined by the growers and inspectors, the plants must be sprayed with an expensive pesticide called "Tame" and left to sit for 12 hours. Once the plant gets to its northern destination, it must be reexamined--leaf by leaf--and if one egg is found, the entire shipment often gets sent back.
McPhail said his inspectors have worked numerous overtime hours and put other jobs on hold as they comply with state emergency regulations requiring them to check for sharpshooter eggs.
"The eggs laid on the leaves are almost impossible to see," McPhail said.
Most of the eggs are found and the tiny amount that gets through, he said, does not represent a threat to grapevines. "I am saying we need to pull back from the extreme," he said. "Use common sense. If you find a leaf with eggs, pull it off and let's get on with business."
Meanwhile, growers and nurserymen are losing money on shipments that are turned back when they reach the north or on the pesticide they need to spray on their crops.
McPhail said one county grower, whom he wouldn't identify, has lost $3 million.
On a smaller scale, there are those like Eleazar Blanco, part owner of Cal-Palm farms in Santa Paula. He said he has eliminated three or four positions on his 21-acre palm tree nursery to make up for pesticide cost and lost sales in the north. The pesticide costs $125 a pint and doesn't last long, he said.
On Tuesday, Blanco watched four agricultural inspectors spend five hours going over 30 palm plants, leaf by leaf, before he could send the shipment to San Francisco.
The load was easy for the inspectors, whose average shipment is more than 1,000 plants.
"This is pretty easy because the leaves aren't too small, like on pepper trees," Eddie Alamillo, a senior agricultural inspector with the county, said as he gently ran his fingers over a palm frond. The inspectors found only three leaves with eggs in the entire shipment.
Another senior inspector, Rudy Martel, said the work was tedious but vital.
"The bottom line is we need more bodies," he said. "All our manpower has all gone to this."
The half-inch-long glassy-winged sharpshooter, which has been in the county for almost 10 years, is thought to have originated in northern Mexico. Because the county has fewer than 30 acres of wine grapes, the pest is considered to be of minimal impact to local agriculture.
But the insect did help destroy the 21-year-old Old Creek Ranch Winery in Ojai, which closed in August. In July, the federal government declared an agricultural emergency and gave the state $36.3 million to fight the bug.