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Strawberry fungus hits Ventura County

By   /   Friday, July 25th, 2008  /   Comments Off on Strawberry fungus hits Ventura County

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A deadly fungus has invaded a strawberry field in Ventura County, raising concern among agricultural leaders as fumigation restrictions continue to tighten.

The fungus has only appeared on one Montalvo ranch so far, officials said. But the condition it causes, called crown rot or charcoal rot, is lethal to strawberries. The strawberry industry is valued at more than $600 million a year in the Tri-Counties.

“In just a matter of a few days, [plants] went from being healthy and loaded with berries to being brown, shriveled up and dead,” said John Krist, chief executive officer of the Ventura County Farm Bureau said.

The fungus also has appeared in the Santa Maria Valley and in Orange County. Its emergence worries agriculture leaders because the one fumigant that is sure to kill it, methyl bromide, is being steadily phased out, with Ventura County farmers only able to use about 30 percent of what they did last year.

Ventura County growers have said the chemical helps them produce profitable yields on the county’s costly land. Opponents cite methyl bromide’s myriad health hazards.

Susan Johnson, chief deputy for the Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner, said the current fungus likely results from reductions in methyl bromide use made in the late 1990s, rather than the more recent cuts. “It could take a while to realize what kind of problems you might see, what kind of yield reduction, what kind of growth restrictions,” Johnson said.

“Organisms take a while to build up.”
The fungus comes during a season in which methyl bromide sits at the center of at least two lawsuits.

On July 16, a California appeals court judge upheld a lower court ruling that the state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation didn’t properly consider the risk assessment of another state office when it put out regulations for methyl bromide. The current regulations allow for workers and the public to undergo more exposure than a state safety office recommended.

“We would hope that in the next few months we would see these more protective standards adopted and implemented,” said Karen Kraus, a staff attorney with the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center, which was co-plaintiff in the case.

The effect of the ruling won’t be clear until state pesticide regulators signal whether they will take the appeal to the state Supreme Court or rework the rules. But tighter exposure regulations could further the fungus problem and create more cost for growers.

“It’s going to require them to either use less [methyl bromide] or to use more protective tarps to protect against exposure,” said Rob Roy, president of the Ventura County Agricultural Association.

Roy’s group has also filed an action to reverse anti-smog rules that took effect in Ventura County earlier this year. The rules sharply limit the amount of fumigation growers can perform between May and October, peak smog season.

Ventura County farmers predicted millions of dollars in lost yields, a serious blow to the tight margins required when farming expensive land. Roy’s group sought to stop the rules from taking effect with an injunction; that failed, but the group still wants the rules reversed and expects a decision by a Sacramento judge by early August.

“The impact was not as dramatic as the industry predicted it would be,” Krist said. However, it’s early in the fumigation season.

“We might have growers who got more allowances than they needed and others who got less than they needed,” Krist said. “There’s no effective way for them to transfer them. If they didn’t get a sufficient allowance, they’re going to have to make a hard decision on what to do about it.”

Rather than risk applying methyl bromide in quantities to small too be effective, growers will often concentrate on just a few fields, even leaving others fallow. The chemical is expensive and is nearly always put on the ground by professional applicators.

“If [growers] could get economically sufficient returns without the cost it takes to apply these chemicals, they would do that in a heartbeat,” Krist said.

There’s at least one bright spot for Ventura County growers, however. In early July, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed new rules that would restrict methyl bromide.

California’s rules for the chemical are already tighter and would likely change little, if at all. But new EPA rules might help level the playing field for California growers.

“Anything that gets producers in other areas closer to the kind of regulatory compliance cost that growers here face, the better it is from a market competition standpoint,” Krist said.

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