Ag at Large: Research reveals farmers’ spirit

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A recent research project to measure growers’ dependence on a certain chemical product has inadvertently displayed the inherent spirit that makes farmers what they are.

University of California researcher, Julie Guthman, set out to learn how strawberry growers in California were coping with the legislated loss of a longtime agricultural chemical used to control wilt in their crops. Use of the compound, methyl bromide, applied as a fumigant was determined to elevate health risks, and its use was phased out, beginning in 2005.

The only substitute known to be marginally as effective was chloropicrin. It had been applied in conjunction with the banned methyl bromide to boost its effectiveness, but it was not considered to be an effective replacement on its own.

Researcher Guthman interviewed 74 California strawberry growers, both large and small acreage producers, to determine how they were managing to control the pervasive wilt disease without the use of the one compound proven to be effective. She chronicled the results of her contacts in a report appearing in the current issue of California Agriculture, the university’s quarterly, peer-reviewed journal.

She found that growers in all four major strawberry product areas were trying to make the most of the substitute chemical by switching from broadcast fumigation to bed application (soil injection), but some encountered restrictions such as land access conditions or land costs.

Their experiences and determination to try to make a less effective chemical do the job led her to suggest a remedy: “Policymakers ought to consider strategies that will incentivize transitions to non-chemical alternatives and mitigate the financial risks.”

“Policymakers,” in this case environmentalist lawmakers, should take into account the effect of their restrictive actions before they are imposed, and they should explore or offer substitute measures that mitigate financial risks.

The unwritten conclusion seems to be that these strawberry growers as typical farmers in the California context have bent over backwards as they say to cooperate with the restrictions imposed. They are paying a severe price in reduced production and income. The researcher didn’t say so but it appears that for all that the growers have done, they see little if any health benefits in the transition they have been forced to make.

Absent from the research report is any indication of belligerence or reluctance on the part of the growers interviewed. The experience confirms the general cooperative spirit so many of them have displayed through an era of environmental dominance and regulatory overreaching.

Researcher Guthman found that during the methyl bromide phase-out period, productivity rates for strawberries continued to increase, prices for berries declined rather than rising and the acres plant held relatively steady between 36,000 and 38,000. In the face of regulatory pressure, growers held their own and maintained normal production.

Guthman listed some of the many factors growers consider leading to their decisions about pesticide use. They include perceptions of pest virulence, how effective treatment with a chemical(s) may be and health and environmental risks. Agricultural chemicals are not cheap, and their cost must be included as their use is considered.

Reviewing how well strawberry growers reacted to regulations imposed by outsiders indicates a basic commitment that farmers seem to display, wherever they are and whatever they grow. They will do everything reasonable to protect their crops, bring them to harvest and sell them for profit.

The research indicates, perhaps unintentionally, how committed farmers are. It also seems to say that those off the farm burdened with rulemaking – that involves farmers – need to take into account the streak of true grit that runs through the farm community. It might be time for them to back off a bit.

Don Curlee
Don Curlee is your man when it comes to Agriculture. His Ag Alert column in our publication is sure to inform you on what you need to know when it comes to the agricultural industry.