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Growers brace for pesticide rules

Starting today, state cracks down on poisonous gases that are injected into agricultural fields.

January 25, 2008|Marla Cone and Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writers

Growers in Ventura County may have to forgo planting thousands of acres of strawberries and other crops this spring to comply with a state pesticide regulation slated to go into effect today.

Facing a court-ordered deadline to combat smog, the state Department of Pesticide Regulation is cracking down on the use of poisonous gases that are injected into fields to kill insects, weeds and pathogens before crops are planted.

The new regulation is projected to be the most costly pesticide rule in California history, with state officials estimating that it could cost growers $10 million to $40 million annually.

The biggest burden will fall on Ventura County, where growers will face strict caps on fumigants because their crop acreage and pesticide use has surged over the last two decades.

State officials have estimated that Ventura County growers could have to stop using fumigants on 5,800 to 7,500 acres, about one-third of the approximately 20,000 fumigated acres.

The new rules will mean the difference between profits and losses for many growers in the region, industry leaders say. About a quarter of the nation's strawberry crop is grown in Ventura County, with the local crop valued at $366 million.

Strawberry growers are the biggest users of methyl bromide, metam-sodium and other fumigants, although the chemicals also are applied to fields planted with other crops, mostly tomatoes and bell peppers.

"You might see barren farm ground out there," said Edgar Terry, whose Terry Farms has 1,400 acres of crops from Ventura to Fillmore. "We've never run into anything like this, nor has any other county.

"I know for a fact we will have to reevaluate all of our ranch lands and decide which ones to keep in strawberry production, which ones to go organic and which ones to go fallow," Terry said. Terry Farms has about 300 acres normally used to grow strawberries and bell peppers that would be subject to the new rules because they are fumigated during the smoggiest time of year, generally from May through October.

The U.S. District Court in Sacramento ordered the state to reduce pesticide emissions by 20% from 1991 levels in areas that violated national health standards for smog. When fumigants evaporate from the soil, smog-causing gases waft into the air. In addition, some of the fumes are carcinogenic and can trigger respiratory and other health problems if farm workers or neighbors are exposed.

The state's administrative law attorneys must first approve the regulation before it can go into effect today. They will review the rules in a meeting with pesticide officials today, but any delay would violate the deadline set by the federal judge.

State officials and industry leaders say the full economic effect of the regulation is unknown because it was put together hastily to meet today's deadline. First, growers must request a fumigation permit by the end of February. Then, in April, they will learn their individual "emission caps," the specific limits on how much fumigant they can use from May through October. That will determine the fate of their spring, summer and fall crops.

Ventura County growers say it's not a viable option to switch to non-fumigated crops because they don't yield enough profits to justify the high cost of leasing land.

Strawberries are the last crop to be grown on a large scale in Ventura County.

"Ventura County has become so costly to do business in. Vegetables have moved out," Terry said. "If there is no alternate crop that you can make money on, you may just give up those leases."

Terry said the new rules may force more growers to farm in western Arizona, Mexico or other areas.

Strawberry growers say no pesticides protect their crops as well as fumigants. Converting to organic methods is expensive, and it takes three years for a field to be certified as organic.

But Rex Laird, executive director of the Ventura County Farm Bureau, said he was confident that local growers would find new ways to cut emissions and retain their position as a major provider of strawberries this year.

"This is significant, but they've had significant challenges in the past and managed to survive," Laird said.

Under the new rules, growers in three smoggy areas -- Ventura County, the San Joaquin Valley and the southeastern Mojave desert -- must use low-emission fumigation techniques from May through October.

Low-emission methods include placing heavy tarps on fields, injecting the chemicals more deeply into soil and using special water treatments and drip irrigation systems.

But in Ventura County, emissions are so high that such techniques will probably fall far short of achieving the court-mandated reductions, state pesticide officials said.

Growers in other areas, including Orange County and the Sacramento region, won't face restrictions because pesticide emissions there have already declined at least 20% since 1991.

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