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Tiny Pest Creates Big Worries for Fruit Farmers

The worst infestation of the Mexican fruit fly in nearly 50 years poses a serious threat to the economic lifeblood of a San Diego County town.

November 30, 2002|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

VALLEY CENTER, Calif. — This is the time of year when this farming community north of San Diego turns its attention to Christmas and the Kiwanis Club's annual gala auction. Or maybe to Little League signups and the never-ending search for good umpires.

But this season avocado and citrus farmers are fighting for their economic lives.

An infestation of the Mexican fruit fly has prodded county officials to declare an economic emergency and petition the state government to declare a quarantine zone around an estimated 6,400 acres.

Farmers flocked to the town's community center this week seeking answers to what is being called the county's worst fruit fly infestation in nearly half a century. For many of them, there were none. Hundreds of farmers are involved, each with an individual problem, depending on the size, type and timing of their crop.

The voracious pests consume a wide variety of fruits and, in the worst infestations, sometimes force the government to order crops destroyed. It is still too soon to know if growers in the "core zone" closest to the infestation in Valley Center will be able to save their fruit through spraying, fumigation or cold storage. It's also too soon to know whether the government will issue an exemption to allow farmers to use pesticides and still label their fruit as "organic."

"Maybe some day we'll look back and say, 'Yes, that's the Thanksgiving we fought the Mexican fruit fly,' " said Rose Polito, whose family has 100 acres of persimmons, tangelos, avocados and a variety of other fruit, much of it ready to pick. "But right now, we just want to survive."

As farmers arrived at the community center, they headed for a wall map showing the central infestation zone and the larger space around it that is part of the proposed quarantine area -- where fruit would not be allowed out without a government permit.

"I'm so sorry," Cathy Mangold, a San Diego County agricultural standard inspector, told one farmer as she pointed out that his avocado farm is in the infested area. He left hurriedly, declining to divulge his thoughts about the possibility of losing an entire crop without compensation.

"I cry for them," Mangold said, her eyes misting. "Especially the organic farmers. These are my farmers; these are my friends."

Stoicism is an admired value among farmers, and many at the community center took the long view.

"I'm concerned, but I don't get carried away with it," said Al Baillif, who has farmed in the area for 40 years. "I've seen it all: too much water, too little water, too much wind, too hot, too cold. If it's not one thing for farmers, it's another."

Chuck Wolford, who has 70 acres of avocados, agreed. "We're tough over here," he said. "We're the original goat ropers. Knock us down, we get up again."

On Wednesday, two adult flies were caught in baited traps, bringing the tiny body count to 48 flies at 17 sites, along with two sites where larvae were discovered. The two new flies were found less than a mile from the original site. On Friday, no new flies were found.

"It's a positive sign that they are still tightly confined," said Larry Hawkins, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "But that could change tomorrow."

Some groves have already been sprayed. But a decision by state and federal officials whether to order more widespread aerial spraying will not be made until next week, officials said.

Among the spraying hard-liners is county Supervisor Bill Horn, who grows avocados and oranges in the quarantine area. He wants aerial spraying from helicopters at 600 feet.

"I want to nuke this area, blast it with malathion and get rid of everything," said Horn, who, like other farmers, was applying for a county permit to spray his crops.

Located 40 miles northeast of San Diego, Valley Center is following the pattern common to once-bucolic Southern California communities. Farmland is being replaced by subdivisions, although the Board of Supervisors recently tried to stem the sprawl by changing the zoning to allow fewer homes per acre.

One imponderable is whether the Mexican fruit fly will be the final straw for some growers, convincing them to sell their land to developers. There is no government program to help farmers pay for the spraying and other measures to save their crops or to compensate them for crop losses.

Of the long term, avocado grower Stu Lynch said: "We're headed residential anyway."

The 2000 census put Valley Center's population at 7,323, an increase of more than 300% in more than 10 years. In the mornings, Valley Center Road, the main route toward Interstate 15, is plugged with commuters trying to get to jobs in San Diego.

Still, farming is the economic and social lifeblood of the community, and the Mexican fruit fly infestation is an unparalleled civic threat. "Valley Center farmers have their own war now: a war against the Mexfly," said a front page story in the weekly Valley Roadrunner newspaper. "Losing is not an option."

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