WATSONVILLE—A newly formed community group with the vision of reducing the use of pesticides in the Pajaro Valley is taking on international berry giant Driscoll’s.
The Campaign for Organic and Regenerative Agriculture (CORA) recently sent a letter to Driscoll’s CEO Miles Reiter calling for the billion-dollar berry producer headquartered in Watsonville to convert its conventional grows around local schools and residential areas to organic operations.
The request, sent to Reiter via email, states that while the group wants Pajaro Valley’s agriculture industry to continue its reign as one of the world’s most prolific producers, that should not trump the public’s health nor the protection of the region’s fertile soil.
“Because we understand that the leadership of your companies decides which fields go organic, we are appealing to you directly as the CEO who has the power to make a real difference,” the letter states.
Signed by three members of CORA, the letter was sent to Reiter the same day the group gathered roughly 25 people for a press conference on Sept. 6 on a 30-foot-wide dirt road separating MacQuiddy Elementary School from Nugent Ranch, where, according to state records, pesticides are routinely used to help produce a variety of berries.
The collective included local activists, a pair of Central Coast doctors and a handful of farmworker families who held a large banner reading “STOP Poisoning Our Kids: GO ORGANIC.”
Three local farmworker families spoke during the press conference, all highlighting various conditions that their children deal with—cancer, physical birth defects and learning disabilities—that they say are a product of being exposed to pesticides while their children were in the womb.
That same group presented to the Watsonville City Council on Tuesday night. The elected leaders hosted CORA and Santa Cruz County Agricultural Commissioner Juan Hidalgo for a briefing on pesticide use in the Pajaro Valley, and the state’s pilot pesticide notification system that launched this summer.
Dr. Ann Lopez, a member of CORA and a longtime advocate for farmworkers as the executive director of the Center for Farmworker Families, closed Tuesday’s presentations by asking the city council to delve into the issue.
“It’s important that you take this seriously,” Lopez said. “It’s a classic example of environmental racism. Why are these children being thrown under the bus?”
And on Wednesday, the Center for Farmworker Families joined the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council, Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers, the local pesticide reform coalition Safe Ag Safe Schools and the statewide coalition Californians for Pesticide Reform in filing a legal request to the Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner to stop pesticide sprays near public schools.
The groups, represented by Earthjustice, in a press release, said it is asking for a review of restricted materials permits approving the use of numerous pesticides within one mile of Ohlone and Hall District elementary schools as well as Pajaro Middle School in north Monterey County.
“The groups ask that the Commissioner stop all spraying authorized by these improperly issued permits until the required review of health and environmental impacts occurs,” the press release stated.
In a response to CORA’s letter shared with the Pajaronian, Reiter said that while Driscoll’s and his family’s company, Reiter Affiliated Companies, have made “a lot of progress in developing the capacity to farm berries organically in suitable areas,” making the shift to organic farming is not as simple as one might think.
Making the Switch
Reiter told CORA that one of the biggest hurdles in going organic is the cost incurred by the farmer tending to the crops and the owners of the land who lease their fields to local growers. Nugent Ranch, Reiter said, is one of several farms tended by Driscoll’s growers that faces this pinch.
“A decision to convert a farm to organic typically requires three years and a very substantial investment by the tenant farmer,” he wrote. “Landowners have generally been reluctant to participate in the costs of conversion. In addition, the lease terms typically do not extend for a sufficient amount of time to allow full utilization of the property following its certification as organic.”
In addition, organic farming comes with increased risks for the crops, and, subsequently, the growers’ ability to make ends meet.
Commissioner Hidalgo in his portion of the presentation showed a photo of a withered crop that he said was a result of a grower electing to not treat a field with pesticides before planting.
“It leads to lower yields and, eventually, the plant will die—it won’t even make it through the entire crop cycle,” he said.
A few minutes later, however, Kathleen Kilpatrick, a member of CORA and a retired school nurse, closed up her presentation by showing a photo of an agricultural field with two signs featuring skulls and crossbones warning people to keep out.
“This is what you would see from some of the backyards in our neighborhood,” Kilpatrick said, highlighting how the older adult communities off of Bridge Street are mere feet away from various agricultural fields where pesticides are commonplace.
Kilpatrick in her presentation provided several visual breakdowns of where pesticides are being sprayed around the Pajaro Valley while also unveiling which fumigants and other chemicals are being used and the quantities in which they are being deployed. Many of the areas surrounding the communities and schools on the northeast side of the city were demarcated by deep red blocks, indicating a significant amount of pesticides have been applied there.
This included the fields closest to MacQuiddy Elementary and dozens of homes on Wagner Avenue where CORA held its press conference.
According to CORA representatives, 33 of Nugent Ranch’s 66 acres are farmed organically. But CORA member Woody Rehanek, a longtime advocate for pesticide reform and a retired special education teacher, highlights that the fields closest to MacQuiddy are conventional grows. In fact, some 41,000 pounds of pesticides were applied in the square mile nearest to MacQuiddy according to Rehanek. This includes 26,000 pounds of chloropicrin, once used as a chemical warfare agent, and 5,000 pounds of Telone, also known as 1,3-dichloropropene.
In addition, last year Glyphosate, commonly known as Roundup, was sprayed at Nugent Ranch. Agribusiness giant Bayer announced last year that it would stop selling the harsh weed killer for residential use in 2023, a decision that came after the company lost several significant lawsuits from plaintiffs who alleged glyphosate gave them cancer. The Watsonville City Council voted in 2019 to ban the use of Glyphosate on city property, following the lead of dozens of cities, counties and school districts, including the Pajaro Valley Unified School District.
A request for comment to Reiter Affiliated was not returned as of press time.
Rules and Regulations
Growers are quick to point out that the use of pesticides is highly regulated by not only the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR) but the County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office. And Hidalgo said Tuesday that California often implements more stringent pesticide regulations than the EPA, and regularly reevaluates which pesticides should and can be used for agricultural purposes.
For instance, Hidalgo said, the state will soon enact tougher regulations for the use of Telone after it found the fumigant was recently used beyond CDPR regulations in the Central Valley.
But CORA says the regulations do little to stop pesticides from drifting out of agricultural fields and into neighborhoods. Moreover, they say they find it confounding that pesticides such as Telone and Glyphosate which are banned in dozens of countries around the world continue to be the most commonly used pesticides in the U.S.
Local jurisdictions are unable to ban pesticides—a power that the state removed from their hands decades ago—and getting the EPA to take action against pesticides has been historically difficult because of a lack of research and studies that directly link exposure to them to adverse health effects.
But a UC Los Angeles-led study published last year suggests that exposure during pregnancy to a wide variety of pesticides may lead to the development of brain tumors during childhood—this includes pregnant women living as far away as two-and-a-half miles from where the pesticides are sprayed.
Importantly, says Dr. Julia Heck, an associate professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health who helped spearhead the research, this study was aimed to determine exactly which pesticides are responsible for the increased risk of these tumors.
“Pesticides are linked to cancer, but there are fewer studies like ours which are identifying which pesticides are the ones responsible,” Heck said via email. “That makes it harder for regulatory agencies to act to ban specific ones. In the U.S., about 20 pesticides have been banned … and these are ones, like DDT, where there has been clear evidence of deleterious effects in humans or animals. But for a lot of pesticides (or other chemical agents) it just takes time for the evidence to accumulate … that show the harmful effects, and it’s only at that point that regulatory agencies like EPA can take action.”
But, Heck added, researchers like her who are looking for steps the world can take to slow down the increasing rates of childhood cancers across the globe often face an uphill battle in making a difference no matter what their studies prove.
“The challenge with this is that the speed of new pesticide development outpaces the speed that scientists can study the harmful effects,” Heck said. “There are hundreds of pesticides out there, and scientists just have limited funding to study them all.”
Former Amesti Elementary School teacher Mary Flodin in the 1990s fought the same battle CORA is currently undertaking.
“And it got ugly,” Flodin said.
When dozens of teachers at the school on the outskirts of Watsonville were suffering from severe nausea, spontaneous vertigo or bloody noses and asthma-like breathing issues, they all chalked it up to a strong seasonal flu spreading through the faculty. But as their symptoms persisted—even after a bottle of antibiotics and other remedies recommended by their doctors—it was clear something else was wrong.
It wasn’t until a Latina joined the staff that the predominantly white faculty understood what was happening.
“She said, ‘Don’t you guys know why you’re sick all the time?’” Flodin recalled.
That kicked off a decade of activism that featured battles with local farmers, rallies in Sacramento at the State Capitol and tension between the teachers and PVUSD leadership. Their chief goal was to convince the neighboring farmers to make the switch from conventional to organic farming.
Flodin said when the group—which eventually became a faction of the Farm Without Harm campaign—spoke to the grower next to the school, district officials sent the educators a letter saying that they could no longer utter the word “pesticide.”
Flodin acknowledged that much has changed since those days.
Organic farming, then a niche industry in its fledgling stage, has now become a viable option for thousands of growers. U.S. sales of organic food products, for instance, reached an estimated $51.6 billion in 2020, according to the Nutrition Business Journal, up from roughly $21.6 billion in 2010.
In Santa Cruz County—in many respects, the birthplace of the organic standard—some 20-25% of the agriculture is organically grown. According to the 2021 crop report, there were 204 registered organic operations over 7,118 acres of land that were valued at $110,310,000.
And, Flodin adds, some of the fields surrounding Amesti are now organic.
But for as much progress as there has been, Flodin, who is also a member of CORA, said that she does not feel vindicated when she thinks back to the 1990s.
“It’s 30 years later and we’re still asking for the same things,” she said. “We’re still asking for a notification system. There are still no buffer zones for schools. And the people that can make this happen aren’t doing it.”
To the state’s credit, CDPR’s pilot notification system active in Watsonville’s older adult neighborhoods—as well as three other small communities across the state—is slated to expand to a statewide program by 2024. But, as trial runs often do, there have been several hiccups that residents say need to be addressed before the expansion. CORA’s Kilpatrick says that the top issue is the notification system—which comes as text and email notifications for those in the pilot zone—does not include the location of where the pesticides are being applied, it only notifies residents that are within one mile of the application.
“It’s really not very useful information,” she told the council Tuesday.
The City Council did not take any action at the meeting, but Mayor Ari Parker said that the topic could return at a future meeting as an action item. It’s unclear what, exactly, could come before the elected leaders when the subject is back on their agenda.
In his response to CORA, Reiter said he “would expect to see continued conversion of farms in the Pajaro Valley and other suitable areas to organic farming.” But he stopped short of guaranteeing that more of the company’s growers would make the switch, saying that “the choice of whether to farm a field organically, or not, is made by the grower.”
Though CORA disputes this claim, it does not disagree with Reiter’s assertion that more farms will go organic over time.
CORA’s Rehanek says that climate change will likely have a big impact on the direction of the agriculture industry this decade and into the next, and regenerative agriculture, an alternative to industrial ag focusing on carbon sequestration, could be the next frontier for the industry.
And, he adds, both the federal and state governments have shown an increasing interest in helping farmers make the change to organic agriculture. In fact, earlier this year Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 2499, which created an organic transition program that included $5 million in seed funding to aid farmers as they move away from conventional grows. In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in August that it would invest up to $300 million into a national organic transition initiative.
Rehanek stressed that he wanted the farmers, many of whom are the Pajaro Valley’s largest employers, to know that CORA is not the enemy. In the future that CORA envisions, the Pajaro Valley would be an organic farming sanctuary that functions in the same way as the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Farmers from around the world, Rehanek says, could come here to learn about how to effectively farm organically from scientists who specialize in the craft and farmers such as Dick Peixoto, the owner of Lakeside Organic Gardens, the largest family-owned and operated solely organic vegetable grower/shipper in the U.S., who have for years been at the forefront of the industry.
“We just need to convince them that there’s a better way to do things so that they don’t have to worry about public health,” Rehanek said.