To get a sense of what any industry’s conversations sound like behind closed doors we might think: If only we could be a fly on the wall. In the case of California’s agricultural industry, you can just listen to AgNet West, a radio show produced in the Central Valley and aired on over 30 stations across the state. In the Aug. 25 episode, Roger Isom, president and CEO of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association and Western Agricultural Processors Association was a guest. And he let loose about his feelings on pesticide notifications to the public.
Some of his issues are technical: “Is it all chemicals, is it just restricted-use chemicals?” he asked. “Should it apply to any type of application – if it’s ground-rigged or is it only aerial applications? Should it be if I’m half-a-mile away, or anywhere in the state?”
Isom goes on to tell the host that pesticide notifications should only go to the most localized recipients, citing a pilot program in Monterey County, in which more than 50 percent of users were from outside California. (To be precise, according to a 2020 report by Ag Commissioner Henry Gonzales, 56 percent of the 4,778 users of that pilot program were from outside California. So it goes with the internet – the Weekly has readers outside of California, too.)
Back to Isom, who didn’t respond to a call for this story, but who made clear in the radio segment that he doesn’t want the public at large to receive notifications. “We’re not going to accept that,” he said. “What we’re fearful of is activists showing up at a pesticide application. That’s exactly what happened in Monterey County where they showed up prior to the fumigation, tried to disrupt it.
“We’re saying no, that’s not going to happen… We don’t need people in New York being notified of a pesticide application in western Fresno County. It doesn’t make sense.”
Here’s the thing: As far as Ag Commissioner Gonzales knows, activists have never shown up to a pesticide application. What they have done is utilize an administrative process to attempt to block applications, in one case appealing a fumigation using 1,3-D on a Brussels sprouts field. (A month later, after losing a first appeal and a second appeal to the state, the grower fumigated anyway.)
Gonzales, who presided over Monterey County’s pilot program for pesticide notifications, shares some of Isom’s concerns. That appeal took about a month – not so consequential in a pre-planting fumigation for Brussels sprouts, but a length of time that could mean crop devastation in another context. Plus there’s extra work for the Ag Commissioner’s office, producing a report some 170 pages long to justify their initial approval.
Monterey County’s pilot began in 2016, with an easy sign-up to get texts or emails, in English or Spanish, about pesticide applications near schools. “The pilot project was a good-faith effort,” Gonzales says. “What we were told is, if there’s such a notification, parents and teachers can take precautions such as keeping children indoors and closing windows. But what we saw was that [activists] used the notification like an alert to their members to mobilize to try to stop applications.”
Noting that California already has strict regulations, Gonzales says after-the-fact pesticide data is enough transparency for the public. I think up-front transparency stands to build trust in government – from Monterey County or New York or wherever – even if that public can be meddlesome.
The issue became a flashpoint when Gonzales spoke to members of the 26-member Sustainable Pest Management Work Group, launched in March by CalEPA, the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. They were touring a Driscoll’s field in Watsonville when, according to a letter from five work group members, Gonzales spoke about an “abuse” of the notification system by activists. “Gonzales implied that ‘activist’ groups have or would put bodies in harm’s way by protesting at fields,” they wrote.
Gonzales wrote back with a rebuttal letter on Aug. 27, making many of the same points he made by phone when I spoke to him.
Members of the work group tell me it feels like they’re making progress and there is trust. Claims like these stand to erode that trust, and that would be the biggest loss of all.