Grape Growers Still Use Illegal Chemical, Farm Magazine Says

Times Staff Writer

Some California grape growers are illegally using a chemical growth stimulator to improve the size and appearance of their table grapes, according to California Farmer, the largest and oldest agricultural magazine in the state.

The unusually critical article in the September issue--and a strong editorial opposing the use of illegal agricultural chemicals--caught the table grape industry by surprise. The magazine's editors said they ran the expose in an attempt to get the industry to police itself before such misdeeds give the United Farm Workers union more ammunition for its table grape boycott.

While the chemical--called 4-CPA--is registered for use on tomatoes and bean sprouts, neither the state nor federal government has approved its use on grapes. Government regulators acknowledged that they fined three San Joaquin Valley growers for illegal use of the product in 1985, but state officials said they had no knowledge of its continued use.

The magazine article comes at a time when the California Table Grape Commission is launching a major advertising campaign to try to combat the UFW table grape boycott. UFW President Cesar Chavez recently staged a 36-day fast to draw attention to the union's contention that pesticides threaten the health of farm workers and consumers.

Explaining why the article was run, California Farmer Managing Editor Richard Smoley said, "The interests of agriculture are not served by the illegal use of (farm chemicals)." The use of illegal growth stimulants "is not a health issue" as much as a case of farmers trying to get a competitive edge, Smoley said.

California Farmer, which has a circulation of 53,000, was acquired in March by Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich Inc. Editorially conservative over the last three-quarters of a century, its earlier editors have roundly condemned liberals and Chavez's union.

In the last year and a half the magazine's editorial position has become "less conservative and more moderate," according to Smoley.

Speaking about the article and the editorial he wrote, Editor Len Richardson said it was better for a voice from the industry to report the problem rather than having the news come from industry critics. "We didn't want the industry to play into the hands of Chavez," he said.

In his editorial, Richardson was critical of those in the agriculture industry who would cover up such illegal actions, saying, "The blatant use of illegal products is a far bigger threat to the continued use of safe, properly applied chemicals than any article this magazine will ever publish."

The article--entitled "The Big Fix"--and the editorial said competition for higher prices and grower "greed" in the 1980s led to the widespread use of a product called 4-CPA, a phenoxy compound that is chemically related to the controversial herbicides 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T used in Agent Orange.

Grape growers pay as much as $1,000 a gallon for the chemical that--when applied to fruiting vines in very small amounts--can turn grapes "the size of dimes into grapes the size of quarters," according to the article. This, in turn, brings higher market prices for the grapes. "There is no question that greed was and is a powerful temptation for the continued us of Fix," Richardson wrote.

While the growth stimulator--also called Tomato Fix or just Fix--is a chemical relative of the phenoxy herbicides, state officials say 4-CPA is a relatively mild toxic chemical. It does not pose the same dangers as Agent Orange because it does not contain the same dangerous dioxins. For regulatory purposes, the law classifies such chemicals as pesticides.

State officials said the chemical's use does not pose a health threat. The magazine's comparison of 4-CPA to the phenoxy herbicides is "horse manure," said Rex Magee, state agriculture department associate director.

Officials of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League and the California Table Grape Commission were critical of the article, calling it "old news" because most of the content was based on the 1985-86 investigation of three table grape growers who were fined up to $12,000 each for illegally using 4-CPA to increase the size and color of their grapes.

"That is an old story," said Bruce Obbink, president of the California Table Grape Commission. "We had three growers use the unauthorized, nontoxic materials back in '85. . . . There was an investigation, and they were fined. . . . Chavez even raised that issue then. . . . We really object to them (magazine editors) trying to make it a new story." Obbink said there were no new reports of 4-CPA use that he knew of.

Grape and Tree Fruit League President Michael Durando said that 4-CPA had been used legally on grapes when it was first developed 30 years ago, but that as the chemical's use declined in the 1960s the manufacturers let its registration expire. Industry officials wanted to re-register the product in recent years, but the idea was dropped because of the product's similarity in chemical structure to Agent Orange, Durando said.

"Our concern was that if it (chemical similarities) got out, it would be impossible to explain the differences, to explain why it was not like Agent Orange. . . . The public doesn't get into the details," Durando said. So the re-registration effort was dropped rather than risk controversy, he said.

Because 4-CPA produced such startling results in the size and color of fruit and helped keep the grape berries on the vines longer, some growers still wanted to use the product. State and county regulators said they began to hear rumors of illegal use in the early 1980s. A farm worker in Tulare County phoned in a tip in 1985 that led to the investigation in the Delano-Earlimart area.

State agents cited Delano area growers Caratan & Son, Marlin Brothers and Dulcich & Sons for use of an unregistered pesticide. The cases were settled out of court in 1986. Caratan paid a $12,000 fine, Marlin Brothers were fined $3,000 and Dulcich $2,000, according to agriculture department spokesman Jim Wells.

Since that time, state and county regulators have been monitoring the grape crops and have not found any more violations. Tulare County Agriculture Commissioner Clyde Churchill said: "We don't have the foggiest idea if it still is used or not. . . . We haven't had any other tips . . . but we plan to do more testing."

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