Produce Sellers Feeling Effects of Medfly Scare

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Produce merchants near the east Camarillo site where Medflies were discovered in September say they have suffered sharp drops in sales due to the infestation and the malathion spraying that followed.

Only now, eight weeks after the Sept. 29 discovery of the crop-destroying flies at St. John's Seminary, have sales at Camarillo-area fruit and vegetable stands begun to recover after plummeting up to 50%, farmers and agricultural officials say.

And at the popular Camarillo Farmers' Market, where business was off 20%, wary customers only began to return in force recently, spokeswoman Mary Little said.

"I think people thought we might not be open, and I think there was some concern about the spraying," Little said. "But lately, sales seem to have returned to normal."

The street-side farmers' market operates each Saturday along Ventura Boulevard in the city's old downtown. Its success affects not only the merchants, but also a hospice for the terminally ill at St. John's Pleasant Valley Hospital, which usually receives about $20,000 a year in market proceeds.

Bob Trainer, farmers' market manager, said that to get the word out that the market is still open, an advertising campaign was launched several weeks ago. Live music also has been scheduled, and experts have been enlisted to discuss such skills as gardening and gourmet cooking.

"For the first month it was very tough," Trainer said. "I would run into people around town, and they would say they heard rumors that (the market) was closed. I think people thought the produce may have been tainted. It was crazy."

Steve Spalla, a federal agriculture officer, said that 25 fruit and vegetable sellers in Ventura County have entered into agreements that limit the way they sell, transport and store produce from the 86-square-mile quarantine zone.

Spalla said the regulations pertain to produce such as oranges and lemons, avocados, tomatoes and strawberries, which are all known to attract Medflies.

Under the agreements, farmers must make sure that their fruit and vegetables have been treated with a malathion-and-corn-syrup bait at least six times before bringing them to the farmers' market, Spalla said.

Once at the market, the produce must be placed under netting or plastic sheets, and stored fruit must be sealed off in fly-proof containers. Any leftover fruit is either given away to local residents or charities or destroyed at the end of the day, Spalla said.

The same restrictions apply to sellers of fruit in roadside stands and retail markets in the quarantine zone--which encompasses all of Camarillo and Somis and parts of Moorpark and Thousand Oaks. Those markets, however, are permitted to store fruit and vegetables they do not sell.

James Barker, a partner at Underwood Ranches and the firm's retail manager, blamed the Medfly crisis for cutting sales at the ranch's usually bustling roadside stand on Los Angeles Avenue by about 50%.

"We're gradually recovering now," Barker said. "The spraying really scared people off. I think some people thought the stuff was contaminated. So you can imagine that we've had to do quite an education campaign to set people straight."

At Queen Ranch in Somis, employees said that the Medfly situation has slowed business significantly.

So far, state officials have sprayed the 16-square-mile Medfly eradication zone three times. The next application is set for 10 p.m. Tuesday--an hour later than the normal 9 p.m. takeoff to accommodate holiday shoppers.

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