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For the Farmers, a Sense of Betrayal

Times Staff Writer

Semi-trailer trucks of state-stamped watermelons resumed their traditional summertime journey down California 99 last week, but in their dusty wake a sense of betrayal lingered in this tiny farming hamlet.

One way or another, in a manner still open to speculation, an important trust has been broken in Mettler and countless other Kern County agricultural communities.

Either a cherished pesticide behaved in a disastrous, unpredicted manner, or the state’s laboratory testing system went awry, or a neighboring farmer callously misapplied the toxic chemical--bringing the entire watermelon industry to a painful, costly halt.

Watermelon farmers find all three explanations painful to consider, but there has been little else to talk about except how the pesticide aldicarb made its way into the melons and what long-range economic implications the subsequent statewide watermelon recall may hold.

Much of the talk is angry, as when David Cerrina sticks his head out of his pickup truck, driving down a thin dirt road next to his watermelon field, where harvesting has finally resumed.

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“I’m lookin’ for someone to sue,” he says.

Cerrina had been cleared by the state to resume harvesting melons before a significant number rotted in the fields, but during the previous week he had lost money when a score of truckloads of his melons were ordered destroyed.

Gossip and theories about the chemical drift between farmhouses and equipment yards separated by hundreds of acres of tomatoes, lettuce, melons and cotton. In some private conversations, villainous growers are fingered by their neighbors, convicted by suspicion rather than proof. Others utter sighs of resignation like one elderly farmer, who says, “My mind is in a turmoil.”

A popular explanation is that a handful of growers applied Temik--a product containing aldicarb that is banned on melons--because it is more effective than using a combination of other, legal pesticides.

One-Step Process

“It gets rid of nematodes and mites. You don’t have to make separate applications, like telone for nematodes and kelthane for mites,” one farmer said. Others believe Temik also helps melons grow larger.

Technical evaluations abound: So-and-so “ side-dressed his watermelon with the damn stuff,” a dust- and grease-covered young farmer with hard eyes said angrily outside his equipment yard. “Some guys, they use Temik before planting to get rid of nematodes--it’s illegal but they do it. But this guy used it later on, too late. That’s why people got sick,” he said.

“This could not have happened at a worse time,” said another grower, Archie Frick, whose crops include 30 acres of watermelons in Arvin, a few miles northeast of Mettler and about 20 miles south of Bakersfield.

‘Needed a Winner’

“We needed a winner this year,” Frick said. “This looked like the first good watermelon year in four years. Weather was hot, demand was up. For this to happen just as harvesting was beginning--I just absolutely thought I was in a nightmare.”

“If you want to go back to prophecy,” said the worried wife of a financially squeezed tomato farmer whose associates grow watermelons, “the Bible talks about a period of great famine. Maybe that’s what we’re looking at.”

Some growers, afraid of being caught in a similar crisis not of their doing, wondered whether they would try to grow watermelons next year.

“I’m not gonna put down $50,000 and come up against something like this again,” vowed one over breakfast at the Farm House, a meeting place for Mettler’s growers.

Poignant Moments

Even the lighter moments were poignant, like the relieved truck driver who had carried the first contaminated load of melons the previous week.

“I took it to a Vons. Over there, I usually eat some. But this time I got a seedless melon instead,” he said.

Last weekend, one Mettler grower, Don Icardo, was found by a Bakersfield television station selling watermelon slices from his fruit stand off California 99, at a time when the state had banned all sales. Icardo, one of four growers initially named by the state as having contaminated fields, had insisted his crops were clean.

While the incident provided some laughter, to an older grower it bespoke an arrogance harmful to the agricultural community’s reputation.

“Talk about the University of Stupid,” he fumed.


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