Les Barbee remembers his excitement 20 years ago when he became one of the first growers in the Yakima Valley to use a growth-promoting chemical called Alar.
“Remember the first time you rode a bike, the first time you drove a car?” the Yakima Valley farmer asked, referring to his feelings about the chemical he calls indispensible to his livelihood.
All of a sudden, apples stayed on the trees 10 days longer, giving him more time to harvest. Once off the trees, his apples kept in storage for months, allowing year-round sales. Their color was a deeper, more even red, and they stayed crisp.
But now, with buyers fearful that Alar has made this all-American food dangerous, Barbee has seen the price of his fruit tumble as never before in his 50 years of farming. He had to close his packing plant because orders stopped coming in. He said if the furor does not end soon, he may be forced into bankruptcy.
‘Can’t Handle a Lie’
“I’ve had frost. I’ve had freezes. I’ve had hail. I’ve had all kinds of adversity. I can handle adversity. But I can’t handle a lie,” he said. Barbee said the public is being scared away from eating apples for no good reason.
The scare began less than three weeks ago with a segment of “60 Minutes” that focused on Environmental Protection Agency hesitancy to ban the use of Alar. School districts from Los Angeles to New York suspended apple sales pending the outcome of tests to determine Alar levels. A buyer in Taiwan, one of the biggest customers of Washington apples, canceled an order last week.
Whether Alar is safe or not, whether farmers use it or not, the nation’s biggest apple-producing state is suffering. Prices have fallen over the last two weeks by a dollar or more per 42-pound box. With nearly half of the year’s crop left to sell, farmers and officials figure the loss will mount into the millions of dollars. There are reports that orders are down by as much as 40% over what they were at this time last year. Growers talk of having to dump some of their fruit.
Several growers worry that Alar is only the start and consumer advocates will soon demand that all pesticide use cease. The growers say they will not be able to grow their crops without the other chemicals.
Alar’s manufacturer, Uniroyal Chemical Co., estimates that 5% of the nation’s apple crop has been treated with Alar. A random sample by the Washington state Department of Agriculture last year showed 7% of the state’s apples had traces of Alar.
However, several Yakima Valley farmers said use is more widespread and even orchards treated with the chemical in past years continue to yield apples containing traces of Alar.
Apples continue to be sold at schools in Washington. However, the state Department of Agriculture did suggest that growers stop using Alar--though not because of local safety concerns.
“It has absolutely nothing to do with whether there are any health effects,” said C. Alan Pettibone, director of the state Department of Agriculture. “It has become strictly a marketing problem.”
At a meeting packed with 150 growers in Yakima, the Washington State Apple Commission on Wednesday announced plans for a $1.69-million advertising blitz to counter the Alar furor by extolling the virtues of apples, though the messages will not mention Alar. Yakima Valley-based TreeTop, the country’s largest apple juice producer, is starting an ad campaign today in Los Angeles, pointing out that no products sold under its label contain detectable levels of Alar.
But growers and executives in the apple industry say they have a powerful campaign to overcome. Actress Meryl Streep has been a forceful advocate against the use of chemicals such as Alar. She is “very effective” in “talking to very same people we’re trying to sell to"--young, health-conscious adults, particularly parents of young children, TreeTop spokesman John D. McAlister said.
“You can use all the facts in the world. If a mother thinks it’s going to poison her kid, what can you do?” asked Dennis Saltmarsh, who helps run his family’s 300-acre farm in the Yakima Valley. Though he uses no Alar, Saltmarsh said, “we’re all in the same boat.”
“The whole industry is hurting,” said Christian Schlect of the Northwest Horticultural Council, which represents growers. “We don’t have the market we had two weeks ago.”
Yakima County pumps $1 billion a year into the state’s economy. Producing everything from apples to hops, cattle and mint, the valley is about 50 miles long and 10 to 30 miles wide, bounded by rolling hills with such names as Rattlesnake Ridge and Horse Heaven Hills.
Although they have endured bad years occasionally, farmers in the Yakima Valley have a hard time remembering when sales were so threatened. Barbee, who is 68, recalled that back in the 1930s there was concern over the pesticide of choice used then--arsenic. He made money then by selling applewood for use in fireplaces because farmers could not sell their fruit.
Many local farmers admit that they should not have been caught off-guard by the furor over Alar. The EPA in 1986 announced that it was considering banning the chemical because of evidence that it might cause cancer. The EPA later backed off, but now is accelerating the process leading to the removal of Alar from fruit crops.
In response to the EPA’s initial concerns, several growers stopped using Alar, and major marketers refused to sell apple products under their labels that had detectable levels of the chemical.
“I don’t have a concern with the safety of Alar,” said Chuck Peters, the TreeTop board member who led the bitter fight to stop selling Alar-treated apples. “Hell, I sprayed. I eat it. My kids grew up in it.”
However, with a customer-is-always-right attitude, Peters called it a “marketing dilemma” that left him no choice but to advocate the Alar ban.
Cooperatives such as TreeTop continue to assist their members who still use Alar by accepting the fruit, but they sell it at lower prices to other users of apple products domestically and overseas, said McAlister of TreeTop. That may change, however, as some co-ops are considering a total ban.
But despite the debate and falling sales, many growers remain reluctant to stop using Alar because they are so pleased with the results.
Because it slows growth, the chemical is especially valuable in the lower reaches of the Yakima Valley, where temperatures are warmer and fruit matures early in the harvest season. Additionally, larger growers often need the extra week or 10 days that Alar gives them to harvest their crops.
The introduction of Alar in the late 1960s and early 1970s coincided with a rapid growth in the Washington apple industry--though better marketing and distribution and advances in the technology of storing apples helped, too.
“There has never been anything so valuable,” said Marvin Sunquist of Yakima. He called it a “wonder drug of the plant industry.”
But now Sunquist fears that he will not be able to sell his entire crop. What he can’t sell, he will simply dump, something he has not had to do since 1950, the first year that he took over the family’s 600 acres of orchards. He said he will not use Alar this year.
“It goes against my principles. But I don’t think we dare. I have very little hope that we can get Alar back into use,” Sunquist said.
At Barbee Orchards south of Yakima, Les Barbee unfolded a small pocket knife and sliced into an apple. Picked six months ago, it looked and tasted as if it had come off the tree that day.
He said it had 1.6 parts per million of Alar. Though the EPA standard is 20 parts per million, he figured that his chance of selling it was slim.
“It has taken a lifetime to build this,” he said, looking around the packing plant, which sprawls over almost an acre. “And I could lose it all because of this. I have not done anything wrong. I haven’t broken any laws. Yes, I’m bitter, damned bitter.”