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Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Break It Down: Farmer Mark Lipson, who also serves as policy director for the Organic Farming Research Foundation, prefers the pheromone to pesticides but questions whether eradicating the moth is necessary in the first place.

Method of Madness

Santa Cruz organic farmers take issue with the state's handling of the light brown apple moth infestation

By Steve Hahn

Organic farmers across Santa Cruz County breathed a sigh of relief in October when the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) announced that the pheromone treatment Checkmate-LBAM would not put their organic certification at risk. But that doesn't mean the organic farming community is 100 percent behind the state's efforts to eradicate the light brown apple moth.While local organic farmers generally consider the pheromone—which disrupts the pest's mating cycle by reproducing the scent of the female moth over a wide area—to be a natural method of control, some remain troubled by certain aspects of the plan. Chief among these are the lack of studies into more ecological pest management, the lack of community involvement in the decision to spray and the potential impact of state-mandated quarantines on small organic farmers.

Thomas Broz of Live Earth Farms was unhappy with the political process leading up to the spraying. Broz, affectionately called Farmer Tom by regular customers, believes more community involvement would have been more in keeping with the tenets of organic farming. "This is a very conventional way of going about the business of eradicating a pest," says Broz. "[The state] basically just decided through the bureaucracy what their strategic needs were. We need to have something in place where we have a way of going about it that involves the community."

Broz believes it isn't too late to begin dialogue on how an alternative structure could be created, where numerous treatment options would be discussed within the broader community before the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) picked a preferred option."There needs to be a different structure," says Broz. "What happens if we have an outbreak of another pest?"Mark Lipson, a member of the Molino Creek Farming Collective, believes the use of pheromone treatments is a step in the right direction when it comes to conventional pest management techniques, but he'd like to see even more resources going into studying a wide-ranging "ecological approach" to battling the pest.

"I do think that a mating disruption strategy is much better than dumping Chlorpyrifos all over the nurseries and our watersheds," he says, referring to the pesticide used to defeat the moth. "That doesn't mean that it's really sufficient by itself or that it's a holistic, ecological approach."

There are many other options besides pheromone mating disruption that would be considered organic, including releasing sterile moths, hanging pheromone twist ties around vulnerable crops, releasing natural predators and using the pest-eating bacteria BT on infested crops. These methods were considered by the CDFA LBAM Technical Working Group but then rejected because they would not effectively result in complete eradication. Lipson is unsure whether this was a wise decision.

"The premise that all of this is necessary does need to be examined more closely," Lipson says. "I don't think we have good ecological data on the basic assumption that is triggering all this need for management in the first place. It seems to be more of an economic and political determination."

For Ken Kimes, owner of New Natives Farm in Aptos, the major problem in the state's management of the pest is the inadvertent impact state-mandated quarantines could have on small organic farmers. State and federal inspectors are beginning to look for signs of the moth both through trapping and physical inspection. If signs of the moth are found, as they were last week at Lumbermen's Garden Center on River Street, the farm or nursery is not allowed to sell its product for a time and BT is applied on the affected plants.

"I don't know how effective BT is against this particular moth, but if you're a small organic farm, 10 to 15 days of not being able to sell your product could put you out of business," says Kimes. "Driscoll and other large growers are able to plow under an infested field and still stay afloat as a business, but that isn't true with the smaller farmers who only have a few acres."

The CDFA's LBAM Regulatory Response Manual calls for inspections of farms within 1.5 miles of a confirmed moth find. The manual does not mandate a specific timetable for how long the farm may not sell its products, but it does require the field to be inspected 30 days prior to shipping. CDFA officials could not be reached by presstime for further clarification.

For Kimes, inspections and quarantines could be a serious impediment to his operations. He would like to see more leadership from CCOF in communicating with the CDFA so that inspections don't inadvertently end up putting small farmers and nurseries out of business. CCOF also could not be reached by presstime despite repeated attempts to contact them.

"The CCOF should communicate with the growers as to why this is a good idea," says Kimes.

"They haven't communicated with me as to why the pheromone treatment is a good idea as opposed to other methods such as hand-ties. They should also work with the CDFA on a plan to deal with these quarantines and then communicate back with the small farmers as to how this will affect them."

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