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Cold Turkey on the Farm

CALIFORNIA'S FARMERS HAVE STARTED checking their fields into the agricultural equivalent of the Betty Ford Clinic. Any honest accounting of our nation's chemical dependency should include most of American agriculture, but this fifty-year era is beginning to wind down. 'Fess-ing up to addictions and seeking treatment has become a fact of contemporary life, and farmers are not about to be left out. Maybe we'll end up naming the nineties the Detox Decade.

For some of these chemical farmers, organic methods (lately subsumed under the broader term ' 'sustainable agriculture" see sidebar) are beginning to look like the option most likely to keep them in business and profitable. The reasons why go way beyond the old argument about organic food being healthier. They now include the health of the soil, the environment and the pocketbook, all driven by a looming barrage of tightening restrictions on agricultural chemicals. Understanding what's going on-now with agriculture in the Golden State requires a foray into that giant thicket known as California politics.

The action revolves around the different ways farm organizations, the state government, and individual farmers are dealing with change. Farmers tend to be conservative everywhere; but California's mainstream chemical ag biz is also entrenched, organized, and extremely powerful in the state government. These are large farmers with lots of land and rights to nearly 85 percent of the water in the entire state. Their organizations have tended to be not very sophisticated when it comes to tactics, featuring political conservatism motivated by fear in the service of the status quo. There has been a heavy reliance on a strategy we might call Take-the-Stomachs-Hostage-While-Crying-Wolf, which attacks any objectionable development as the destroyer of all California agriculture. Crudely translated, the message is always:' 'if you want to keep eating, don't mess with us!"

The problem is that farmer groups like the California Farm Bureau Federation have used this tactic so many times that the public has turned off to the messages. Cesar Chavez and unions for farm workers were going to be the death of California agriculture. So was the Agricultural Labor Relations Board the state set up to resolve those labor/management conflicts. So is anybody or anything trying to interrupt the massive flows of heavily subsidized water. So was, and is, the Medfly. And the federal reform of immigration law. And Proposition 65, the initiative the voters passed that forced the state to identify cancer-causing chemicals and try to do a better job of keeping them out of everybody's water. All of these issues affected farmers in this state, all were perceived by their organizations as dire, but all have been adapted to and survived.

State agencies tend to be pretty good at change California is such a diverse and populous place they pretty much have to be. The state legislature is the exact opposite mired in special interest legislation and bought and paid for politicans. We are fast approaching government by lobbyists. This past winter our first state legislator was convicted of taking money to swing his vote, complete with televised hidden-camera video of him discussing dollar amounts with police informants. Because he is generally perceived merely as the one who got caught, some of his colleagues are reportedly running scared. If the agricultural interests happen to own some of these elected officials, they are simply playing the only game in town, no differently than the aerospace, defense, real estate or insurance industries of this state do.

Voting these rascals out is easier said than done, especially given the enormous amount of money it now takes to run for any state office. TV rules, and the political ad writers all seem to be cribbing from Animal Faim. In the process, millions can be spent on a race for a single legislative seat. Fortunately there is a way for the people of California to short-circuit this impasse by using the initiative process.

This is a vestige of California's Progressive era at the turn of the century. You can be a concerned citizen, Lyndon LaRouche or the AM A; it doesn't matter: as long as you convince enough of your fellow voters to sign a petition, your initiative can qualify and the whole state gets to vote on it. This makes for long ballots but it functions as an important safety valve for any issue the legislature, is unable to deal with. This year the environmental community is sponsoring one dealing with broad environmental reform. The section most affecting agriculture will phase out all chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive harm. Nicknamed Big Green, its sponsors include Assemblyman Tom Hayden and the state's attorney general, who is also running for governor.

The California Farm Bureau Federation has done some polling and discovered that in the present climate of public concern over food safety and environmental degradation. Big Green will pass no matter how hard they fight it. So they've decided to run their own competing initiative. If you can't beat them, imitate them. Hope to confuse the electorate with two competing initiatives, each claiming to be the true savior of the environment. The chemical-farming coalition has named their initiative the "Consumer Pesticide Enforcement Act for Food, Water, and Worker Safety," and they are calling their front group CAREFUL, for " Califomians for Responsible Food Laws." They have a^lso stuck in a sentence that says if both initiatives pass, the one getting the most votes supercedes any areas of conflict between the two.

This exact same exercise in democracy got played out here two years ago when the insurance industry, faced with a consumer-based reform of auto insurance rates, ran not one but Several competing initiatives. The TV ads presented the complete Orwellian nightmare, but the voters saw through them all and approved the consumer-backed initiative and defeated all the others. (What they passed has been tied up in the courts ever since, but that's another story.) If you enjoy watching Frank Capra movies, it was a hopeful sign. And as it turns out, there may be a fly in the Farm Bureau's ointment anyway.

The Mediterranean fruit fly jmedfly) has reappeared in the Los Angeles Basin. It has been hitchhiking into California periodically (the last serious outbreak was in the southern part of the Bay Area in 1980-82|, usually in tropical fruit sent to individuals through the mail. The packages thereby escape the inspections given to commercially imported produce, and the Medflies are only detected by the time they are already living in the fruit on a backyard tree in some urban hamlet like El Monte.

Should the medfly hop the Tehachapi Mountains and settle into California's agricultural heartland in the great Central Valley, there will be serious trouble, because this insect has the frightening ability to lay its eggs in more than 250 different kinds of fruit and vegetables. The least toxic way to combat medflies is by breeding sterile males and then releasing them in sufficient numbers until the population eventually breeds itself out of existence. But the state has somehow nm out of sterile males for now, and is forced to rely entirely on the other remedy, pesticide. To eradicate a few ounces of insects, repeated aerial applications of malathion are currently being sprayed onto the civilization known as Greater Los Angeles.

In the closest real-life analogy yet seen to the drippy, futuristic L.A. depicted in the film Blade Runner, squadrons of small helicopters in tight formations, their illuminated spray-booms hissing in the dark, nightly trace precise grids over the densest concentration of voters in all of California. The people below don't like this agricultural version of Bringing the War Back Home one bit. It's one thing to be zipping through farmland on the Interstate and suddenly see a spray plane up ahead, and then catch some of the drift. Roll up the windows, punch the accelerator, and outta there pronto, while maybe thinking, "Sure glad I'm not the poor sucker [farmer] who's got to live there and breathe that stuff all the time."

Well, this year the poor suckers live in places like Pasadena, and if tonight is spray night, you bring in the dog, stay in yourselves, and remember to cover the cars and the fish pond and the kid's sandbox. And you worry, and you complain to your elected officials. A lot of people don't believe the state agriculture department's repeated assertions that this spraying is safe for humans, but they are so far powerless to halt it. This is a testament both to the the enormous power of chemical agriculture in California, and to the seriousness of this pest. But how do you suppose these frustrated citizens are going to vote come November?

Some farmers in this state aren't waiting around to find out. Like good surfers, they are trying to stay ahead of the wave in order not to be crushed by it. And it isn't like the Big Green initiative is the only wave out there. The federal farm bill gets revised every five years, and 1990 is the year. New restrictions could result. Over at the Environmental Protection Agency, several of the older pesticides that were grandfathered into the regulations (and thus exempted from the studies newer ones now face) are up for a second look. Some are doomed to regulatory extinction. In a few cases newer and safer chemicals exist as replacements, but either way, the handwriting is on the wall for all to see.

These messages are being read by the manufacturers of agricultural chemicals as well. Typically these are multinational petrochemical giants, and for them the agricultural sector represents a small, and not very profitable, fraction of their total business. Amory Lovins, of the Rocky Mountain Institute, has recently been consulting for three of the largest, and he reports that they consider agro-chemicals as "the world's largest toxic tort. They want out, and are looking for something else to do." Robert Rodale, who has observed these changes for forty years as editor of Oiganic Gaidening, described a recent meeting with executives from Dupont, who not only endorsed sustainable agriculture but have positioned their business as one that provides products for it. Says Rodale, ' 'When Dupont tells you they are a sustainable-agriculture company, then you know that you have become the middle of the road."

Farmers have frustrations every bit as genuine as those of consumers. What hurts them most is being perceived by the general public as polluters, as enemies. Since most people live in cities and don't actually know anyone who farms, this stereotyping may be convenient at election time, but it makes it difficult to see farmers as people, and easy to miss the changes taking place.                    

Jon Waters typifies the adaptations many conventional California farmers are making. Like his neighbors in the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley near La-mont, he is a large-scale farmer. His family's business, Nalbandian Sales, was started by his stepfather forty years ago; primarily they grow, pack and distribute table grapes. In 1989, Jon, who is 31, experimented with organic methods on 400 acres of his grapes.

"I was real skeptical,'' he says,' 'I figured I would have to give something up to go organic. I discovered I was wrong, and that I can produce a better product by being organic than I could doing it with chemicals." He talks about the damage repeated pesticide sprayings do to the plants themselves, of the sodium and heavy metals in the sprays that burn grape leaves and over time weaken the plant and decrease yields. Convinced by his trial, Jon registered all 990 acres of his table grapes with the California Certified Organic Farmers last fall and began the process of converting them to organic.

Waters is not an organic pioneer; in table grapes, that distinction belongs to Steve Pavich, a grower near Delano, who began experimenting with large-scale organic techniques over a decade ago. For years, his operation was the one everyone laughed at; now it's the one being copied. But Waters is ahead of the wave.

"I'm rocking the boat,'' he says. ' 'We're the first conventional business in our district to go full swing the other way. I'rn going through a re-learning phase in my career. I don't know all of my costs doing it organically, but I have learned that you don't save any money farming organically. You just spend it on different inputs." Instead of pesticide concentrates at $100 a pound. Waters is spending money for compost, cover-crop seed and organically approved botanical insecticides.

Like all farmers of his scale, it is probably more accurate to think of Waters as a businessman who happens to produce food. His decision to switch to organic is a business decision, based on his best hunch about how to keep his farm profitable in the future. ' 'Whether these carcinogens and mutagens are safe or not is no longer the issue," he says. "Consumers will no longer tolerate them on their food.'' But there is also a personal factor operating here. He speaks about his mentor, the man who broke him into the table-grape business and who sprayed all his life. He's dead, in his early fifties, from a disease than can be caused by accumulated pesticides in the body. There's no way to prove cause and effect, but it makes Waters think about his own health. "I've sprayed Captan, a known mutagen, for years," he says. "I have three kids, aged six months to five years, and I don't like having to worry about whether the baby will be OK every time my wife is pregnant. I work out in those grapes every day, and I want to minimize my hazards. Farming organically does that."