Gas Ban Delay Creates a Cloud of Discontent


With last month’s down-to-the-wire passage of the 1999 omnibus spending bill, Congress tossed California growers a big carrot: a long-sought delay of a ban on methyl bromide.

Still, many farmers are far from jubilant.

“They’re still looking at a 25% reduction [of use] in 1999, 50% in 2001, 70% in 2003 and 100% in 2005,” said Cindy Jewell, chief of staff for the California Strawberry Commission in Watsonville. “Those are significant reductions, and there are no viable alternatives.”

Growers of strawberries and 70 other California crops, along with Florida tomato growers, use the potent soil fumigant to control a wide range of pests. An odorless gas that is injected into soil, methyl bromide is highly poisonous to human beings and depletes the Earth’s protective ozone layer.


A little-noticed attachment to the bill by U.S. Rep. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento) won a four-year reprieve for growers, who had been braced for a mandatory cutoff in 2001 under the federal Clean Air Act. The postponement until 2005 conforms with an international deadline for developed nations under the so-called Montreal Protocol.

Proponents of the delay note that many trading partners demand that California crops be fumigated with methyl bromide. But environmentalists were outraged.

“This was irresponsible policy that resulted from a last-minute, behind-the-scenes deal that allowed no chance for discussion,” said Kristin Schafer, the methyl bromide program coordinator for Pesticide Action Network, a nonprofit group in San Francisco. “It sends U.S. farmers in the wrong direction.”

Schafer noted that growers in many European countries have already phased out or plan soon to eliminate use of methyl bromide. They are using crop rotation, solar heating of soil and other methods to control pests.

Schafer faulted the U.S. Department of Agriculture for failing to offer growers technical support and training in the use of alternatives.

Talk, but No Walk: As if 300,000 or so responses weren’t enough, the USDA is seeking even more feedback on its proposed national standards for organic food. In particular, it wants comment on animal confinement, animal medications and procedures for certifying producers. Organic industry reps are irate that the agency continues to ignore many of the industry’s suggestions on those issues. “They still don’t get it,” said Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz.


Top Dog in Ag: California farmers are jawboning about who will replace Ann M. Veneman as state agriculture secretary in Democratic Gov.-elect Gray Davis’ regime. Here’s a short list of people who have thrown their hats into the ring or who have cropped up in the rumor mill: Assemblyman (and diversified farmer) Michael J. Machado (D-Linden); Rusty Areias, a third-generation farmer from Los Banos and former ag committee chair in the Assembly who is now chairman of the California Coastal Commission; Bill Lyons Jr., a cattle rancher near Modesto; and U.S. Rep. Gary A. Condit (D-Ceres). There is even some mild (wild?) speculation that Davis would ask Veneman to stay, but Veneman says she would be “highly doubtful” about that prospect.

“Mompreneur”: Working mom Fran Lent could never find anything nutritious for her two preschoolers in the frozen food section. So she started Fran’s Healthy Helpings in Burlingame. It is the only company whose frozen meals for children (including Lucky Ducky Chicken and Soccer-oni & Cheese) meet the Food and Drug Administration’s criteria for “healthy.”

The company last week rolled out the line to mainstream Southern California groceries, including Vons, Ralphs and Albertson’s. Given the short life of many frozen food lines, Lent said she is seeking to ensure staying power by working with other manufacturers to create “kid zones” in supermarkets, where parents could find a variety of kid-friendly foods in one spot. Her company is headed toward $1 million in sales this year and expects to turn a profit in two years.

Going Nuts? With California cotton acreage and prices shrinking the last few years, the state’s largest cotton cooperative is seeking permission this month from members to market, of all things, almonds. Calcot Ltd. in Bakersfield said it is 100 or so votes shy of the 913 (out of 1,825) it needs to change its charter. Gene Lundquist, vice president of Calcot, said the intention is to “start small and establish a niche for our membership,” many of whom have diversified into almonds to cope with declines in cotton. The co-op would market brown almonds (which have been hulled and shelled but not further processed) for use in cereals and baked goods.


Martha Groves can be reached by e-mail at or by fax at (213) 473-2480.


Methyl Bromide Use

Methyl bromide, an odorless gas that depletes ozone and is highly toxic to humans, is injected into the soil in liquid form to kill insects and diseases that can harm the roots of strawberries, tomatoes and other crops. An acre requires 300 to 400 pounds for soilfumigation. Methyl bromide use in 1995 for selected California crops, in millions of pounds of active ingredient:

Strawberries: 4.24

Wine grapes: 1.19

Almonds: 0.93

Head lettuce: 0.81

Carrots: 0.80

Grapes: 0.54

Peppers: 0.48

Watermelons: 0.31

Leaf lettuce: 0.13

Broccoli: 0.08

Asparagus: 0.05