Science is the Key to Driving Home Agriculture’s Message
November 9, 2015, 5:51 pm
Filed under: Biotechnology

By Richard Cornett
Director of Communications
Western Plant Health Association

It was made abundantly clear during my association’s recent annual meeting just how important science is to countering an alarming growth of anti-science sentiment engulfing the social fabric of our nation.

I would like to open with some prophetic words from one of my favorite scientists the late Carl Sagan.

“If the world is to escape the direst consequences of global population growth and 10 to 12 billion people on the planet in the late 21st century, we must invent safe and more efficient means of growing food – with accompanying seed stocks, irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides, transportation and refrigeration systems. How can all this be accomplished without science and technology?”

The denouncement of science by environmental activists, along with what seems to be a confirmation of their views by some of the country’s prominent government leaders, has unfortunately resulted in a large segment of our population left distrusting our institutions and scientific advancements. It has reached an absurd point in which conspiracy theories are rampant with a wide belief that government regulators and policy makers are in the pockets of Big Oil, Big Ag and large corporations. Therefore, any information coming out of these entities is to be taken with a grain of salt or not believed at all.

In explaining another dimension of the problem, I’ll supply a quote from Hank Campbell, who spoke at our annual meeting last month and wrote about the conference afterward. Campbell is the president of the American Council on Science and Health. He talks about a “cultural schism” that has evolved in our country. (You can read his entire article at this link:  http://acsh.org/2015/10/acsh-talks-science-outreach-at-the-western-plant-health-association-meeting/ .)

“Increasingly, academic scientists have been educated in the belief that only government-controlled science is “real” science – and that those on the corporate side are doing something less valuable by doing applied science. Many academics don’t feel like they should solve real problems.”

But then Campbell notes that it hasn’t always been like this, and highlighted a presentation given during our business luncheon by Professor Dennis Gonsalves, who he described as an “old school” academic scientist. Fortunately, Dr. Gonsalves was not steeped in the belief that it is only the job of a corporate scientist to solve problems. He believes just the opposite – that it is the duty of public sector scientists to solve our pressing problems.

Now granted, while Dr. Dennis Gonsalves may not be a household name here on the mainland, he approaches sainthood among the papaya growers in Hawaii for saving their livelihood.

That’s because he and a fellow team of scientists discovered how to give the papaya a “vaccine” to protect it from the ringspot virus that was devastating the papaya trees on the islands. And he did it using genetic modification. When the virus really hit no change in crop rotation or pesticide could fix it, as Gonsalves pointed out in his luncheon speech. Gonsalves’ team showed their data and their field tests and their ideas were streamlined into approval.

Of course, this was in 1998 when environmentalists hadn’t yet learned that opposing science would promote their political objectives, and didn’t go to court to block the new technology that would ruin farmers if not implemented.

Yes, it was a huge win for Hawaiian papaya growers, Gonsalves and his team, and especially for science. Today, instead of being a rare delicacy, you can buy this transgenic Rainbow papaya anywhere for about a quarter, and that is because nearly all of it grown in Hawaii is genetically engineered to resist the ringspot virus. Bioengineered papayas now cover roughly 2,400 acres, three quarters of the total Hawaiian papaya crop. These papayas have been approved for consumption both in the U.S. and Canada, and several Asian countries are developing GMO papaya varieties resistant to their local virus strains.

But disappointedly, many who now live in Hawaii seem to have forgotten the science lesson laid out by Dr. Gonsalves. Although science saved the papaya industry in Hawaii and consumers enjoy the results of that technology every single day, many have allowed themselves to be whipped into a frenzy by “activists from the mainland,” as island scientists label them. It’s ironic that some islanders hate GMOs while living in the poster state for being saved by them.

As Campbell succinctly put it: “Scientists like Dr. Gonsalves can fix many things, but they can’t fix culture. For that, it is up to you and me.”

Bee Deaths Remain a Big Mystery After Years of Studies
September 28, 2015, 8:46 pm
Filed under: Agriculture, Pesticide Use

By Richard Cornett
Director of Communications
Western Plant Health Association

For more than a decade now scientists have been busy attempting to figure out what is killing off the honeybees. I have written about this topic more than once in this space so I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to attend a workshop in early September at UC Davis dealing in pollinator health and colony collapse disorder (CCD), the label given to the mysterious deaths of honeybees.

The workshop had a whole list of expert speakers, including Brian Leahy, director of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, Nick Condos, director of the Plant Health Division of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, Dr. Michael Parrella, professor and chair of the Department of Entomology and Nematology at UC Davis, and many other impressive names and titles.

The main focus of the meeting was on neonicotinoids, a specific class of insecticides called “neonics” for short. In the past decade, researchers worldwide have been studying the effects of neonics on pollinators after beekeepers reported suspicions that they were harming honeybees and their hives.

Parrella, of UC Davis, said there’s no doubt that neonics and pollinator health is controversial because there’s people lined up on the side of science, and others concerned about politics “and people are passionate on both sides.” He said the university is working to produce science-based information so that California lawmakers can “make the best policy decisions.”

DPR’s Leahy emphasized that his agency currently works with county ag commissioners, producers, beekeepers and others to develop and implement regulatory ways along with voluntary methods to help protect bees. He noted the obvious importance of maintaining good pollinator health because California is the largest ag state in the nation, having roughly 400 crops which are specialty crops that create great protection challenges. He mentioned that DPR is focused on more “benign chemistry that is target specific,” and the process involves searching for new and unique approaches in dealing with the bee problem.

But neonics are important to California agriculture. Condos with the CDFA noted that they are currently used to combat the Asian citrus psyllid, the Japanese beatle and the glassy-winged sharpshooter, the latter preferring to feast on table and wine grape plants. He said that CDFA currently uses a variety of mitigation practices involving neonics including: Establishing project boundaries, avoiding over spraying, analyzing alternatives to neonics, calculating the best times and conditions for foliar applications, covering non-target plants, and notification of applications to farmers and ranchers. “Our treatments are confined to small areas; we are trying to strike a balance.”

I was particularly impressed with Elino Lastro Niño, an extension apiculturist at UC Davis, who pointed out that during the last five years bee studies have doubled across the world. But as of yet no single culprit has been identified that could be held solely responsible for CCD. Instead, she stated that a variety of factors appear to be contributing to honeybee decline, such as: habitat loss, stress, parasites, invasive species, nutritional deficits, pathogens and a long list of other possibilities.

She added that a 2015 study in the Netherlands found that varroa mites play a key role in winter colony loss. On the issue of varroa mites, Nasser Dean, a panelist with Bayer CropScience, said the mite attaches itself to the back of bees, sucks their blood and returns to hives with the bee and then attacks other bees. “It’s like a vampire with AIDS.”

According to Gene Brandi, with the American Beekeeping Federation, local growers could not survive without neonics. He said that today’s pesticides are a big improvement over chemicals used 40 years ago, and that “the sky is falling” headlines in the media often blow the situation out of proportion. “These stories go way beyond what they should be.” Brandi, however, did emphasize that in his opinion pesticides are playing a major role in the current bee die-off.

It’s worth noting that according to the latest report from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, worldwide bee populations have been steadily increasing over the past decade and have hit a record high dating back to 1961. Both Europe and the U.S. are at record highs since neonics first came on the market in the mid 1990s.  To take this bit of good news farther, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported bee deaths have dropped nearly 25 percent over the past two winters and the overall population has increased 17 percent since 2008. Plus, the Department announced in March that honey production, which had been disrupted after CCD devastated the bee population nine years ago, continues to improve, up 14 percent. The total number of hives also increased again, by 100,000 or 4 percent, as it had the year before and the year before that.

Lastly, beehives regenerate quickly in the summer, so normal winter losses don’t necessarily translate into declining bee populations, which is why initial news reports should not be taken at face value, as many news reporters have a bad habit of doing. In fact, overwinter losses in the U.S. are now just a few points above the 18.9 percent average losses considered acceptable by beekeepers, according to USDA’s Bee Informed Partnership, which runs the annual survey.

Returning to the UC Davis workshop, during the meeting there was an overall consensus that the honeybee mystery is a “complex” and “challenging” puzzle which requires more examination to sort out the exact cause. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it bears repeating – at this time bee experts can’t put their finger on one particular culprit and suspect a myriad of contributing factors. So don’t be swayed by alarmist headlines demanding a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides altogether because, quite frankly, there is no evidence to support these claims. Apparently, those reporters would have had a different perspective had they took the time to attend the UC Davis workshop about the latest on pollinator health.

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USDA Pushes its own Labeling Program
August 3, 2015, 4:07 pm
Filed under: Agriculture | Tags: ,

By Richard Cornett
Director of Communications
Western Plant Health Association

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is developing its own GMO (genetically modified organisms) labeling program, according to recent reports from the Associated Press.

This really doesn’t surprise me, given the fact that for years activists have been pushing for a federal standard for foods made with genetically modified ingredients since statewide attempts at GMO labeling initiatives have proven largely unsuccessful and costly.

Both the Ag and food industries widely support a nationwide voluntary labeling process instead of a patchwork of individual mandatory state labeling efforts that can be confusing, expensive and misleading because GMOs have been proven safe.

USDA’s certification is the first of its kind and would be voluntary – and companies would have to pay for it. If approved, the foods would be able to carry a “USDA Process Verified” label along with a claim that they are free of GMOs.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack outlined the department’s plan this spring in a letter to employees, saying the certification was being done at the request of a “leading global company,” which he did not name.

Currently, there are no government labels that only certify a food as GMO-free. Vilsack said the USDA certification is being created through the department’s Agriculture Marketing Service, which works with interested companies to certify the accuracy of the claims they are making on food packages, such as food labels that state “humanely raised” or “free of antibiotics.” Companies pay the AMS to verify a claim, and if approved, they can market the foods with the USDA process verified label.

I have written before in this space about how nonsensical the labeling of GMO crops tends to be. The marketing of non-GMO food is an opportunistic, fear-based phenomenon. I can’t say it better than San Diego biologist Dr. Steve Savage, who writes for a blog called “Applied Mythology” and who contributes to my association’s blog site from time to time.

“If the goal (of food labeling) is to allow consumers to know more about their food, then why not transmit knowledge with context and perspective that would diminish, rather than promote, superstition?” Savage adds that activists fail to acknowledge that virtually all crops have been genetically modified in various ways for centuries and that transgenics, a particular means of genetic modification, have been the most carefully introduced and independently tested of all.

He continues, “Although all of the major scientific bodies around the world have affirmed the safety of GMO crops, the fear-based messaging has worked. This has created an up-selling opportunity in the food industry, and that kind of marketing is well served by the two word message, ‘Non-GMO.’ The seller can tap in on all the emotive, doubt-sowing efforts to date without any potential confusion that would be created by knowing the full story. It’s effectively a ‘right to not know.’ ”

Furthermore, in a Wall Street Journal article this month, the GMO labeling issue was debated with Andrew Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety taking a pro stance, and Dr. Nina Fedoroff of Penn State University arguing against labeling.

Kimbrell’s key points centered around: GMOs are materially different than their non-engineered counterparts, and the public has a right to know it; the cost of labeling would be negligible for the industry; GMO grown crops contain novel bacterial, viral and/or other DNA never seen in foods, often creating novel proteins that question their safety; and genetic engineering is not safer, nor more efficient nor more predictable than traditional breeding.

Dr. Fedoroff’s responses to those claims pointed out:

  • Today’s genetically modified crops look and are nutritionally exactly like their unmodified counterparts.
  • To claim that a food derived from a commodity crop (e.g. corn, soybeans, canola) is free of modified ingredients requires keeping the crops separate from field to fork. It costs lots of money to do separate storage, shipping, processing and marketing.
  • Concerning safety, a Stanford University study found that there was no significant nutritional differences between conventionally and organically grown crops. However, organic produce is 10 times more likely to be recalled for bacterial contamination than conventionally grown food. That’s a far worst track record than GMO crops, which have never caused a health problem in the more than 20 years of commercial availability.
  • Lastly, GMO crops have increased yields by an average of more than 20 percent globally. Additionally, modern agricultural methods cause less genetic disturbance than the radioactivity and chemicals used for crop improvement in the 20th century. They even disturb genomes less than the conventional plant-breeding methods used for centuries.

Fedoroff sums it up: “The fact is, adding ‘genetically modified’ to a label suggests that the food might cause health problems. And that’s exactly what anti-GMO activists and organic food marketers would like you to think.”

Returning to the USDA’s involvement in the GMO labeling process, its current effort is very similar to what is being proposed in a House bill introduced earlier this year as an alternative to mandatory GMO labeling efforts around the country (H.R. 1599 passed the House Agriculture Committee on July 14). Even though GMO labeling drives have been quashed at the polls in states such as California, Colorado and Oregon, there are currently more than 70 bills that have been introduced in over 30 states to require GMO labeling or outright ban GMO foods. Vermont became the first state to require the labeling in 2014, and that law will go into effect next year if it survives a legal challenge from the food industry.

I thought it would be fitting to wrap up this piece with some wisdom from Dr. Savage, who quotes the lyrics of Stevie Wonder’s classic song “Superstition,” with a unique spin of his own on the marketing scam surrounding non-GMO products.

“When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer … superstition ain’t the way.”

Now, imagine the good doctor’s lyrical spin …

“When you’re afraid of things you don’t understand, and pay more … superstition ain’t the way.”

Kinda has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

California Regulators Study Pesticide Usage Near Schools
June 26, 2015, 3:43 pm
Filed under: Agriculture

Richard Cornett
Director of Communications
Western Plant Health Association

The California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) has wrapped up public workshops focused on obtaining input and feedback from the public about the use of pesticides near California schools.

The public sessions, which took place in May and June in Sacramento, Salinas, Ventura, Oxnard, Lamont and Coachella, were sparked by a media story written by the Center of Investigating Reporting concerning Rio Mesa High School in Oxnard.

The March 20 article, titled “How a pesticide loophole increased cancer risk at a California school,” pointed out the many strawberry fields that surround Rio Mesa High School, alleging large amounts of pesticides used and the concerns of local residents, particularly Ventura County Supervisor John Zaragoza, who has called for an investigation into the matter. Many schools have been built on prime agricultural land next to farm operations. Increasingly, teachers, parents and the general public want to know what chemicals are being applied around them, according to a DPR news release.

While there are currently strict regulations on the use of individual pesticides, DPR’s regulatory framework for restricted pesticides also allows county agricultural commissioners to establish additional rules to address local conditions through permits.  The department is considering whether to adopt some of these rules on a statewide basis, as well as other restrictions.  Thus the basis for the public workshops.

“DPR wants input from the public as it creates a statewide policy that will help mitigate the challenges created by the schools being placed close to working farms,” said Brian Leahy, DPR director shortly before the first public hearing on May 28 in Sacramento. “The policy will include minimum statewide requirements that clearly reflect the responsibilities of schools and farmers as agricultural pesticides are applied close to schools.”

In particular, DPR was seeking to hear ideas about:

  • Improving communication through notification to schools of intended applications of certain pesticides. The department was seeking input, for example, on when and under what circumstances such notifications should be made.
  • Reducing the risk of exposure by requiring additional restrictions on certain pesticides. Among other questions, DPR was searching for input about whether such restrictions should focus on specific application methods and within a certain proximity to schools.

Since the Western Plant Health Association (WPHA) is an integral member of the agricultural community, a staff member attended the Ventura event which has been deemed ground zero for activists concerned about pesticide usage. DPR also held a session in the afternoon for growers and agricultural interests in the county supervisors’ auditorium.

The room was packed, with attendees voicing concerns about the actual need of new regulations, added costs, and problems with increasing notifications and widening the buffer zones around schools. WPHA provided suggestions on behalf of the grower groups, specifically stressing that state regulators should hold accountable local jurisdictions that allow for the practice of permitting schools to be built in established agricultural areas.  While some public speakers did raise concerns about pesticide products being applied around schools, many speakers focused on farm worker safety issues, which was not part of the regulatory discussions.

One particular key concern about pesticides and their use near schools was voiced by a staffer on behalf of Santa Barbara Democratic Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson. One major concern of the attending grower groups centered on new regulations and possible expansions on regulations beyond school grounds. In Sen. Jackson’s rather lengthy remarks was her comment to DPR that her goal is not to have new rules stop with schools, but be expanded to the use of any pesticide around any home or residential area – a troubling notion for many growers in the audience.

DPR’s last listening workshop was held on June 9 in Coachella. The department now will weigh the comments gleaned from the workshops that will help draft a statewide regulation in the very near future about pesticide applications and usage in the proximity of schools grounds.  Stay tuned ….  (If you have comments about this article please feel free to leave your thoughts.)

Islanders gain valuable lessons in crop protection benefits
April 20, 2015, 5:13 pm
Filed under: Pesticide Use

By Richard Cornett
Director of Communications
Western Plant Health Association

As I promised several months ago in this space to update you about the anti-pesticide and anti-genetically modified organism (GMO) movements underway in Hawaii, the latest news is that the islands continue to be a hotbed of activity against agriculture’s methods and tools.

National anti-pesticide and anti-biotechnology groups have teamed up with local activists with the goal of crippling and driving the seed research farms out of Hawaii. The thrust of their energies has been focused on the seed farms use of pesticides and the alleged impact this will have on the surrounding communities.

This activist unrest first began at the county level and has now made its way to the Hawaiian Legislature. More than 15 anti-pesticide bills have been introduced this season that would put unprecedented restrictions on larger agriculture entities and their use of pesticides. All of the proposed legislation has died for this year, but there is the likely expectation that the bills, and many others similar to them, will be back in even greater number next session.

To counter this activist assault, my organization, the Western Plant Health Association (WPHA) that represents Ag interests in California, Arizona and Hawaii, along with other allied agricultural groups, went on the offensive to dispel misinformation and defend agriculture by implementing a program that better informs policy makers, farmers, and local community members about the safe use and management of crop protection tools.

WPHA is working with the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association (HCIA) to hold ongoing events in Hawaii about how crop protection products are managed and regulated to protect the environment and public safety.  The events – spearheaded by WPHA President Renee Pinel and Rachel Kubiak, WPHA’s director of environmental and regulatory affairs – have so far been held on Oahu, Maui and Kauai. WPHA developed outreach materials to pass out to the public during these meetings, which were held in the evening and during the day to maximize the number of people who could attend. Crowds of curious and inquisitive farmers and community members packed the rooms.

The program provides valuable, truthful information for farm groups, HCIA/WPHA company personnel, allied business groups such as the local Chamber of Commerce, and policy makers such as legislators and regulatory agency managers.

This is all part of a continuing series of events designed to help raise awareness concerning the truth about the safety of crop production products and their importance. One of the main objectives entails educating groups or individuals who support the right of farmers to make their own decisions on how to manage their farms, to be familiar enough about crop protection products to feel comfortable about addressing the topic.

Hopefully, this will encourage them to engage in conversations about these issues, and begin challenging the anti-pesticide and anti-GMO hyperbole that has dominated much of the conversation over the past year in Hawaii.

It’s interesting to note the particulars in what is discussed in the massive community outreach project. The topics covered includes: what is required to register a product, the science behind the registration process, what experimental use pesticides are and how they are regulated, what a restricted use pesticide is, when, why and how pesticides are mixed, what is drift, and what are the regulations in place to prevent it.

WPHA also covers the facts behind the most common misrepresentations being tossed about on the islands about crop protection tools, and how to respond to those misrepresentations. HCIA provides farmer speakers to give firsthand examples of why they need pesticides and what can happen if they are not used.

Since pesticides and GMOs have been a hot topic of controversy over the past few years in Hawaii, needless to say the issue has sparked the interest of news reporters.

WPHA President Pinel, when asked by one curious reporter in Hawaii about the subject, noted that activists have been pushing for full disclosure of pesticide usage for seed farms in Hawaii, based on California’s Pesticide Use Reporting (PUR) system as well as extended buffers around farms that use pesticides. She explained the costs of the California PUR program, and the potential costs of mimicking that program in Hawaii to farmers. Pinel emphasized that despite the hyperbole of activists that the concerns were limited to seed farms, she said the ultimate goal of these activists was the total elimination of the availability of crop protection tools to farmers.

“If activist groups are successful in requiring unnecessary reporting of crop protection products for seed farms, their agenda will move to require it of all farmers – a step that the Hawaii Farm Bureau believes will result in many small farmers being driven out of business,” she told the media. She added that the importance of having crop protection tools available to farmers, and the commitment of WPHA member companies and allied Ag trade groups for the overall benefits of agriculture, means working together with the state of Hawaii in developing a program that will address the sincere concerns of communities without resulting in excessive costs to farms.

Lastly, when it comes to the suspicions in Hawaii regarding the benefits and safety of GMOs, its enlightening to mention that in the late 1980s the University of Hawaii began developing a papaya strain resistant to the Papaya Ringspot Virus that was decimating the islands’ papaya crops. Hawaiian farmers began commercially growing the first virus-resistant papayas in 1999.

Bioengineered papayas now cover roughly 2,400 acres, three quarters of the total Hawaiian papaya crop. These papayas have been approved for consumption both in the U.S. and Canada, and several Asian countries are developing GMO papaya varieties resistant to their local virus strains.

Pity. How soon they forget … .

Nutrient Management Practices Appear Alive and Well on California’s Central Coast Farms
February 13, 2015, 5:27 pm
Filed under: Agriculture

By Richard Cornett
Director of Communications
Western Plant Health Association

A couple of years ago a UC Davis study was released claiming that the nitrates found in fertilizers were seeping into California’s groundwater and contaminating drinking water supplies.

While the agricultural community refuted many of the assertions in the 2012 report, state water regulators used much of the study’s data to justify new regulations that include requiring growers to come up with nutrient management plans. These would entail important factors such as: documenting the application of nutrient rates necessary to achieve realistic crop yields; improving the timing of nutrient applications; and using agronomic crop production technology to increase nutrient use efficiency.

Along with these suggestions, water authorities requested that growers submit on a periodic basis reports about the soil testing and monitoring results on their fields associated with nitrogen inputs.

I thought it would be interesting to follow up on the progress of the new nitrogen management standards and talk to some growers on California’s Central Coast – the Salinas Valley region being one two areas mentioned in the UC study as having the most contaminated groundwater from agriculture (the other being in the Tulare Basin.)

What I discovered was pretty much what I expected, which was for more than a decade most growers have been well aware of the problems linked to the mismanagement of nutrients and have been working diligently to remove the black eye from farming.

Tim Borel is the production manager for Blanco Farms in Salinas.  Blanco Farms has 3,000 acres and grows lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, celery, green onions and other vegetables. Over the past decade Borel calculates that the business has seen a 38 percent savings due to effective nutrient management practices.

“We started out more than a decade ago by following some agricultural guidelines laid down by the University of California,” he told me. “We farm with a nitrogen budget for our crops. Our budgeting process includes soil, water and input nitrogen.  The 38 percent savings came from the input sector, because we have complete control over what we put on the crops. I don’t want you to think we were able to change how much nitrogen was in the soil or in the water.  Actually, we reduced our fertilizer input by 38 percent from our grower standards of 15 years ago and we are now lower than we’ve ever been.”

What’s his formula for this success?  “We’ve embraced a couple of new technologies in the additive market.  We blend all our nitrogen with humic acid complexes and this helps us out a lot.”  He added that Blanco Farms also utilizes drip irrigation for a delivery vehicle for the fertilizer and that’s paid a lot of dividends as well. “It’s important to me that we farm in a way that allows us to be good stewards of the land, and allows us to manage the resources that we have properly. I try to achieve what I like to say is to operate at the point of maximum efficiency.”

For another perspective about nutrient management and farming on the Central Coast, I contacted Bob Martin and Jocelyn Gretz of Rio Farms in King City.  Martin is general manager and Gretz is the director of science and environmental resources and is also a California certified crop adviser.  Rio Farms operates 17,000 crop acres in both California and Arizona and grows everything from onions, lettuce and cauliflower to celery, broccoli and baby greens.

“We started out 12 years ago or so and we started using composting; we manufacture a lot of our own compost,” Martin said. “A lot of our ground was out of balance with magnesium and calcium. So we started using lime and compost and in a few years we brought our land into condition where we raised our calcium levels up and lowered the magnesium so the clods weren’t so hard anymore.  We basically were able to farm the ground better and more efficiently.”

Martin said that in 1997 he began nitrate soil testing with agronomist Tim Hartz of UC Davis. “Over the years we’ve implemented more drip irrigation.  We’ve pretty much taken fertigation (irrigation containing fertilizers) out of the picture on our ranches, so a lot of our operation is now sprinkler or a sprinkler-drip combination so we have minimized runoff.  In all our acres we have no irrigation tail runoff,” he noted.  “We actually keep everything on the farm.”

One main improvement in nutrient management that Martin swears by is solar-powered soil moisture sensors.  He says most growers unfortunately can’t afford them, and a rental system is yet to be worked out, but he says he’s convinced that every grower needs one. He tested the moisture sensors on his onion crops – on sandy, medium and heavy soils – and the device would tell him when the soil moisture from drip irrigation was at the six-inch level and when it reached the 12-inch level it would tell him that he was over irrigating.

“So we were able to cut back our hours on each of those soil types,” Martin said. “Basically, it is a tool that we use over a lot of different fields that have the same soil types. So we cut back our irrigation hours so that we wouldn’t run any nutrients below the root zone.  It’s a great tool and one that every grower needs.”

But what about those small to mid-size growers on the Central Coast who perhaps can’t afford the modern devices that larger operations can afford to manage their crop nutrients?

For a smaller-scale perspective I contacted Richard Smith, a farm adviser at the Cooperative Extension in Monterey County.  In his role as a farm adviser in vegetable crop production and weed science Smith interacts with smaller growers farming 1,000 acres or less.

“I think the soil quick test is still the main tool and it’s not that expensive,” Smith said. “This simply involves testing the soil for soil nitrates prior to making a decision on how much to fertilize.”

The other tool he mentioned was an effective irrigation system. “You can’t separate nitrate nutrient management from irrigation, which involves managing the water carefully so you don’t leach nitrogen away and a good drip irrigation system allows you to do that.”

And if smaller growers need additional advice in nutrient management, Smith said that they sometimes hire private soil consultants who can help then find the answers they need.

Smith also made me aware of a website used by both large and small growers called CropManage created by his colleague, Michael Cahn, which contains a wealth of UC research in a format that makes it easy for growers to apply to their farms. “It introduces growers to weather-based irrigation scheduling,” he said. Smith worked with Cahn in obtaining some of the early trial data for the website.

The website allows farmers to quickly calculate the precise fertilizer and water needs of their crops, thereby saving vegetable growers money and protects drinking water sources from nitrate contamination. The technology uses weather information gathered by the California Irrigation Management and Information System; a state program which manages a network of more than 120 automated weather stations in California.

“Water and nitrogen management decisions require specific calculations that can be automated in CropManage which would be too difficult for a busy farm manager with many fields to track on their own,” creator Cahn was quoted as saying.

According to Jocelyn Gretz of Rio Farms, the website currently provides information on only a handful of crops, such as lettuce and strawberries – the top crops in Monterey County. Other vegetables include information on romaine lettuce, iceberg lettuce and broccoli. Research is underway on leafy greens, such as spinach and baby leaf lettuce, so they can be added.

“Generally, we know how much fertilizer we need and where. We somewhat do our own version of CropManage,” Gretz said. “We take our own soil samples and we have a private weather station in King City for our own local data.”

So, even though you may not hear a lot about what growers are doing; know this.  Central Coast growers are continually working toward implementing best management measures designed to keep crop production plentiful and profitable in the region, while at the same time improving the quality of our water supplies for now and for future generations to come.

Breaking Environmentalists’ Myths About Pesticides
December 8, 2014, 11:04 pm
Filed under: Agriculture | Tags:

By Richard Cornett
Director of Communications
Western Plant Health Association

To hear some environmentalists tell it, pesticides are the bane of civilization that need to be eradicated.  Activists will tell us any pesticide use will produce all sorts of malignant maladies, dangerously pollute the air and waterways, severely damage the environment, and are poisonous in the foods we eat.

But missing in their arguments are some common sense details, the most obvious one triggering the question:  If we do not control the pests and diseases that threaten our food crops then how is the agricultural industry going to feed the billions of hungry stomachs on the planet?

With all the rhetoric, it is quite understandable that many consumers fear the use of any amount of pesticides on crops, and their concerns are not to be dismissed but merit careful consideration.  On the flip side, farmers who live and work on farms and have families of their own are especially cognizant of the dangers when pesticides are applied improperly.  It hardly seems believable that farmers would run the risk of harming their own families if they weren’t convinced about the safety of working with these types of chemicals.

The truth is before modern pesticide tools were created the planet was rampant with food famines, disease and insect invasions that devastated vast amounts of crops that left scores of people dead or on the brink of starvation.  Modern pesticide tools turned this scenario around.

It’s a fact that pesticides are indeed toxic by design and deliberately released into the environment.  But when used properly, both natural and synthetic pesticides protect people and their environment from pests – animal, plant or microbial – that threaten human health and the balance of nature.  What most people are unaware of is that there is a highly integrated and multi-layered process of safety procedures to assure that pesticides are accessed for their safe use around humans and in the environment.  U.S. EPA scientifically reviews all pesticides for safety before they can be registered.  The process not only involves scientists at the Office of Pesticide Programs, but scientists at other departments within U.S. EPA such as the Department of Fish and Wildlife.  This guarantees to all states that any pesticide used in the United States has been accessed and is safe.  And then there’s California…

Nowhere in the world are pesticides more heavily regulated and closely monitored than right here in California.  After some hours of research on the website of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) it became obvious that minus the hysteria of certain green groups, DPR employs a strong scientific approach that has built the agency into what many would argue is one of the most comprehensive pesticide regulation programs in the world. (DPR’s website by the way is www.cdpr.ca.gov and click on “About DPR.”)

DPR’s mission is to protect human health and the environment by regulating pesticide sales and use and by fostering reduced-risk pest management.  The agency is funded by regulatory fees and has about 350 employees, including toxicologists, environmental specialists, and risk managers whose job it is to evaluate the scientific information and identify how products can be applied in a manner that is safe to the environment, workers and the public.

A portion of DPR’s budget supports local pesticide enforcement by county agriculture commissioners. Under DPR oversight, the commissioners and the roughly 250 biologists who work for them serve as the local enforcement agents for pesticide laws and regulations in the state’s 58 counties – a one-of-a-kind program in the nation.

Here’s just a few of the examples DPR oversees to assure and enhance pesticide safety:

If manufacturers cannot demonstrate that their products can be used safely to protect workers, consumers and their children, and others who may be exposed to pesticides, DPR will not allow the pesticide to be used; the department oversees the statewide licensing of commercial applicators, dealers and other pesticide professionals to ensure they are adequately trained; evaluates the health impacts of pesticides through risk assessment and illness surveillance; monitors potential health and environmental impacts of previously registered pesticides, helping to find ways to prevent future contaminations; performs residue testing of fresh fruits and vegetables, sampling domestic as well as imported produce; and through grants, awards and regulatory incentives, DPR supports development and adoption of safe pest management practices designed to encourage reductions in pesticide usage in favor of more natural pest controls, and to reduce or eliminate the harmful environmental and health impacts of pesticides.

Furthermore, DPR is involved with community outreach projects that emphasis the safety of pesticides through training programs for agricultural businesses that can send certified and trained staff to farms to teach farm workers and farmers about on-farm safety. The farmers enroll in a program where products and equipment that are used on their farm will be discussed and reviewed. This business model has been replicated by other private companies throughout the state.

Mid Valley Agricultural Services, for example, is one of DPR’s approved companies certified to pursue this objective.  According to Rachelle Antinetti, business development manager for Mid Valley, her company discovered almost a decade ago that there was a high demand for creating awareness and helping farmers and farm workers work safely on the farm. Mid Valley created Cal Ag Safety with the stated mission of educating farmers and farm workers on farm safety and compliance.

“The program is successful because we work with the farm workers and farmers in their own environment, with their own equipment and tools,” she told me. “The classes are offered in both Spanish and English and include a variety of hands-on learning activities.”

Antinetti says that a great safety program is complete with proper documentation and can assist growers with this documentation, as well. Because of the success of programs like these, Cal Ag Safety implemented Cal-OSHA programs. Some of the trainings include CPR, forklift certification, heat illness training and harvest safety.  Retail organizations across the state now provide similar kinds of services to growers to assure growers and their employees safely handle and apply products.

Clearly, great care is taken to protect workers and assure the safe use of products in the agricultural sector, but what about the general public?  To assure that all citizens are protected, the regulations dealing with the safe use of pesticides are established on a statewide basis through the state’s pre-emption authority.  Pre-emption assures regulations will protect all sectors of the public through protocols that are established for all uses and settings.  And like U.S. EPA, other health agencies that specialize in public health consult and recommend safeguards before products are approved for use.

But pre-emption is not unique to California.  Like California, states such as Hawaii and Arizona utilize pre-emption to provide for the safe oversight of pesticides for their citizens. While recently contested in Hawaii, federal court decisions have validated the state’s authority over the use of pesticides, thereby assuring a uniform, scientifically sound regulatory process for the oversight of pesticides.

California, Hawaii and Arizona have specific departments that exercise authority over pesticides, and all three states work cooperatively with other agencies within their states in determining the safe use of pesticides. Additionally, all states work cooperatively with U.S. EPA on pesticide issues.

The agencies that regulate pesticides employ individuals who are highly qualified and experts in their fields. Their decisions are never made in a vacuum, with not only agencies within a state consulting with each other in their areas of expertise, but with their neighboring state agencies, and with U.S. EPA.

The public should rest assured that pesticide products are assessed at the highest standards and continuously evaluated to provide safe products and assure their safe use.  And that’s fact, not rhetoric.