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California and the West

Sonoma County Battle Lines Drawn Over Grapevine Killer

Agriculture: Some vintners favor spraying to kill the glassy-winged sharpshooter. Organic farmers are opposed.


SEBASTOPOL, Calif. — As he awaits the coming spring, organic farmer Shepherd Bliss wonders which prospect poses a bigger threat to his county's wholesome way of life: a pesky insect that endangers the local wine industry or what he calls the state's draconian effort to eradicate it.

Like Bliss, anxious agricultural officials are watching for signs of the glassy-winged sharpshooter, a hardy half-inch bug that carries Pierce's disease--an incurable virus that is plaguing California grapevines.

So far, the leaf-hopper has hitch-hiked its way to 13 counties aboard ornamental nursery shipments from Southern California, causing at least $100 million in losses--mostly in the state's central and southern vineyards.

With nursery shipments hitting their busiest season this month, battle lines are being drawn across Northern California's wine country.

But nowhere have tensions flared as they have in eco-sensitive Sonoma County, where armies of organic farmers coexist with a $2-billion-a-year wine industry.

What angers residents is a state plan that, in cases of serious infestation, would allow agricultural officials to seek a court order to spray pesticides on private property, even against the owner's wishes.

Forced spraying is not only bad science, but it smacks of agricultural martial law, sacrificing the rights of individuals to protect the interests of big business, Bliss and others say. Although only one sharpshooter has been found in Sonoma County, infestations occurred last year in Butte, Contra Costa, Sacramento and Fresno counties.

"This is tantamount to chemical trespass and assault," said Bliss, a member of the new No Spray Action Network who for 10 years has run a two-acre farm. "The issue here is quite simple: the wine industry's wealth or our health. They gain, we lose. They benefit, we pay the health costs."

State officials say their chosen pesticide--carbaryl--is an over-the-counter flea killer that is not harmful to humans and would be used only as a last resort.

The chemical has been applied on 3,133 private properties statewide without any incidents of forced spraying, they say.

In recent months, the pesticide debate has caused growing tensions between Sonoma County's 654 organic farmers--whose numbers are second only to those of San Diego County--and about 225 winemakers who produce some of the nation's most popular brands, including Clos Du Bois, Kendall-Jackson, Geyser Peak, Kenwood, Gallo and Korbel sparkling wine.

In 1999, the last year for which figures were available, grape growers represented 56% of Sonoma County's agricultural production. And officials say the figure could soon reach 70%.

"Sonoma County is among the country's most prosperous wine producers. So this is ground zero--the place where the battle over the glassy-winged sharpshooter is going to take place for the entire state," Bliss said. Pete Opatz, vineyard manager for the Clos Du Bois winery in Geyserville, said many Sonoma County residents resent the wine industry because much of the area's agricultural land has been converted to grape growing.

"For most people, forced spraying isn't an easy pill to swallow," he said. "I myself wouldn't want storm troopers invading my property. And that's the way it's been posed: Big Brother is coming."

Now the issue is forging an unusual alliance of politicians and activists in this environmentally conscious county. Last month, three cities--Sebastopol, Sonoma and Windsor--passed resolutions against the state's sharpshooter control program, which had been approved by the county Board of Supervisors. Santa Rosa recently deadlocked on a similar resolution.

Although the moves carry no legal weight, they suggest a growing tide that has been joined by a cross-section of doctors and artists, teachers and parents.

Activists are circulating petitions and staging seminars on methods of nonviolent civil disobedience--a grass-roots protest that they say harks back to the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. and environmentalist Rachel Carson.

Seeking to avoid what they call the insanity of state-sanctioned helicopters that once sprayed malathion to eliminate the Medfly, organizers say their tactics could include locking arms in a human blockade to prevent officials from reaching private land.

"Once again, state officials are throwing around war terminology, saying they're ready to employ weapons of war against this insect," said Sonoma City Councilman Larry Barnett. "Well, when the state starts its search-and-destroy mission, we don't want to become collateral damage."

But there is also a hinted threat of violence by such activists as an organic winemaker who has joined the no-spray ranks.

At his winery in Forestville, an hour north of San Francisco, Michael Topolos has hung signs meant to warn state officials against forced spraying.

"Any chemical trespass will be prosecuted, but first they're going to have to deal with me--and I'll be out there with my shotgun," said Topolos, owner of Topolos at Russian River Vineyards.

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