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Pioneering Insectary Squashed

A slump in Valencia oranges leads to the closure of a Fillmore facility that fought bad bugs with good.

August 10, 2003|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

For 81 years, the Fillmore Insectary has held the line against crop-munching pests, unleashing a small army of beneficial insects to keep the bad bugs at bay.

But after decades of battle in local orange groves, Ventura County's oldest bug farm has lost the war.

The insectary shut its doors late last month, the victim of a prolonged slump in the Valencia orange market that has prompted growers to uproot thousands of trees in favor of crops better able to turn a profit in California's competitive fruit and vegetable markets.

Members of a grower cooperative voted July 18 to close the insectary, which had pumped out as many as half a million beneficial insects a day for Fillmore-area growers and helped reduce reliance on toxic pesticides.

The growers, who paid an annual $40-per-acre assessment to run the operation, said their oranges no longer were making enough money to keep it going.

"It's the end of an era, and a very sad end," said veteran farmer Martha Gentry, president of the board of commissioners of the now-disbanded Fillmore Citrus Protective District.

"We've had marvelous successes over the years," Gentry said. "It's ironic that at a time when the public is looking to reduce pesticide use, this organization, which has been doing it for 81 years, is unable financially to continue."

Tucked deep in the citrus heartland of the Santa Clara Valley, the Fillmore Insectary is the latest casualty of an industry plagued by plunging profits and prices.

Although Valencia oranges remain a strong component of Ventura County's $1-billion-a-year farm economy, that industry has been wracked in recent years by retail consolidation, rising production costs and increased foreign competition.

Once the county's second-biggest cash crop, Valencias now barely crack the top 10. Values have collapsed to pre-1970 levels, and the amount of land dedicated to the oranges has fallen nearly 60% in the last 30 years.

Agricultural officials say the insectary's closure indicates just how dramatically the industry has faltered. And they say it demonstrates the fragile nature of the farm economy, revealing how the collapse of one sector can wash over an entire industry.

"It's a prime example of what happens when the acreage of a certain crop falls below a certain economic threshold and can no longer keep ancillary companies in business," said Earl McPhail, the county's agricultural commissioner. "It's too bad, because we're talking about a business that was a pioneer in California."

The Fillmore Insectary was launched in 1922, a time when most area orchards were fumigated with cyanide gas to control such citrus pests as red scale, black scale and mealybugs.

Breaking from chemical dependence, the insectary reared and released natural enemies of those pests, introducing a system of biological control that turned major pests into minor worries for most Fillmore-area growers. In recent years, only about 2% of the acreage in the district has required chemical treatment, according to district officials.

Although the insectary produced more than 20 species of beneficial insects and mites for a variety of crops over the years, it concentrated in recent years on production and release of those bred to control pests in the orange groves.

At its peak, the pest control district served about 250 growers, farming about 8,000 acres. But as the flagging orange market forced growers to other crops, membership fell to about 120 growers farming fewer than 3,000 acres.

The vote was 106 to 6 to disband the district, although many of those who voted in favor did so with heavy hearts.

"It has nothing to do with the insectary, really; it's just the circumstances in the citrus business," said Marjie Bartels, who along with her sister, Sally, runs an 83-acre citrus ranch near Fillmore. "We hate to see it happen, but it's just a reflection of the changing nature of agriculture out in this area."

Growers in the district will not be left entirely in the lurch.

A neighboring insectary in Santa Paula will try to produce the parasite used to control black scale, a pest once rampant in Southern California citrus groves.

And longtime Fillmore Insectary manager Monte Carpenter is coming out of retirement to start production of the red scale parasite, a tiny wasp whose larvae kill pests by eating them from the inside out. A local farmer has volunteered his ranch for the project.

The 64-year-old bug expert started at the insectary in 1961 and retired as its manager at the first of the year. He was on vacation when the vote was held. When he learned about the closure, he said, tears came to his eyes.

"Things can't stay forever," said Carpenter, walking through the two-acre insectary compound once ringed by citrus groves but now surrounded by housing subdivisions. "When the growers aren't making money on their fruit, they've got hard decisions to make."

Still, perhaps no one will miss the place more.

It was there among the racks of banana squash, used to produce the bad bugs needed to breed the beneficial insects, that the Fillmore bug farm helped spur creation of Ventura County's insectary industry, considered a pioneer in the bug breeding business.

Carpenter said he thought long and hard about that history as the insectary came to an end.

"There's a lot of people who did some hard work to keep the insectary going," he said. "I think the growers really wanted it to stay in business, but there was not a whole lot they could do about it."

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