Pressure building on pesticides, Driscoll’s says it will consider organic-only by schools

Blackberries growing at Reiter Nugent Ranch next to MacQuiddy Elementary School
The conventionally grown blackberries at Reiter Nugent Ranch are divided from the playground at MacQuiddy Elementary by a small dirt road.
(Contributed)

A new advocacy group’s campaign to educate the public about the dangers of pesticides sprayed near neighborhoods with schools in Watsonville has also focused specific pressure on berry giant Driscoll’s, a multibillion-dollar company spawned in Santa Cruz County. Leaders at Driscoll’s and its main affiliated grower confirmed to Lookout that they are listening.

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Watsonville’s Sarah Legions, a first-grade teacher at MacQuiddy Elementary School and a 15-year resident of the same East Lake neighborhood where farmland meets the urban interface, added a third child to her growing family a year ago, a baby girl.

Unlike her two teens, who have grown up actively playing around that zone knowing there were times to stay inside because potentially harmful pesticides were being sprayed at the nearby farms, she’s feeling hopeful that 1-year-old Sadie might get to live a freer existence.

She also hopes that as a mom she will be somewhat freed from that crushing worry about what the long-term effects pesticide use might be doing to her loved ones.

“I do enough worrying for the whole family — it’s exhausting,” Legions said on a recent afternoon, looking out across the conventionally farmed blackberry fields behind MacQuiddy, with the berry-rich Pajaro Valley now a few months into peak pesticide-spraying season.

PART 2: The organic challenge

MacQuiddy Elementary School first-grade teacher Sarah Legions.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

It was the same spot where a few weeks earlier activists, doctors, educators and farmworkers had convened to rally awareness about these sensitive school/farmland crossover zones — there are more than 20 in the Pajaro Valley — and make a pointed demand for growers next to schools to use only organic farming practices that avoid the most toxic chemicals.

While they won no promises, that recently formed group called CORA (Campaign for Organic & Regenerative Agriculture), made up of concerned Watsonville advocates, has at least won the ear of the single most powerful agricultural person in the valley.

Driscoll’s CEO Miles Reiter told the group, in response to an emailed letter they sent him, that he looked forward to a more organic future in Watsonville and that school zones were the obvious low-hanging fruit.

In a follow-up interview with Lookout, Reiter reaffirmed that belief: “To move, over time, to growing more organically in town, and especially near schools, just makes sense for everybody.”

Driscoll's CEO Miles Reiter.
(Via Driscoll’s)

Lookout also spoke with Eric Reiter, his nephew and the head of Reiter Affiliated’s West Coast operations, which is the company contracted to grow at that patch alongside MacQuiddy. Neither Reiter said there was a specific plan in place, but both indicated internal discussions were ongoing at each company.

Eric Reiter said Oxnard-based Reiter Affiliated is already making concerted efforts toward organic growth. It’s a movement being heavily pushed at both the state and national levels, and he said he doesn’t see why both companies can’t be a driving influence for other growers willing to follow their lead.

If there’s a risk to the industry, we should all be coming up with solutions that both work for the industry and address those risks and those concerns.

— Eric Reiter

“If there’s a risk to the industry,” he said, “we should all be coming up with solutions that both work for the industry and address those risks and those concerns.”

According to Pajaro Valley Unified School District leaders, there are 18 schools directly adjacent to active farmland. Several other private schools are also in that category. According to research done by CORA, 12 of the PVUSD schools have conventionally grown fields within a quarter-mile of campus.

CORA co-founder Adam Scow said his group isn’t concerned about how change comes, whether driven by corporate risk-management assessments or community betterment initiatives. It just hopes there will be actions taken in the months ahead that back those statements.

For those who live and teach in neighborhoods like the one where MacQuiddy meets Reiter Nugent Farms, it underscores the strange coexistence of family neighborhoods and the agribusiness that drives the local economy.

A group called CORA led a gathering in early September
Retired teacher Woody Hanek speaks as farmworkers and their children look on.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

There’s even a key city ballot-measure battle looming, pitting Q (Planned Growth and Farmland Protection Initiative) vs. S (Planning for Watsonville’s Future) before local voters. It will establish how community members weigh the importance of farmland in the midst of an ever-growing housing affordability crisis.

“Driscoll’s does a lot of good things for this community — they even donated to my classroom,” Legions said. “So I really hope they do the right thing on this one, too. It would give people like me much greater peace of mind.”

Adam Scow is the co-founder of CORA.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

* * *

Reports publicly available from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation list the synthetic pesticides used by the gallons recently at Reiter’s Nugent Farm and the many other fields that fall within a quarter-mile envelope of that schoolyard.

In those reports, they are mostly listed by nebulous brand names: Malathion 8 Aquamul, Wetcit, Mustang Maxx Insecticide, Delegate WG, Exirel Insect Control, Kanemite 15, SC Miticide, Vestis. All of those were used on that patch of Reiter’s, maybe 30 yards from where the MacQuiddy playground begins, in the month of August, records show.

Ag industry advocates point out that pesticides are heavily regulated and have strict limits on when they can be sprayed near schools. They must give advance notification, both posted and to a single administrator at each school, usually the principal, and that person is responsible for spreading word to the school community in both English and Spanish. (More than 80% of PVUSD students are Latino.)

Conventionally grown strawberries.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Yet even with strict state regulations overseen by a countywide agricultural commissioner, and a more transparent notification system being developed by the state after years of complaints, most smart, busy people like Legions aren’t easily equipped to figure out what the real dangers might be to her growing family of five or her class of 6-year-old MacQuiddy first graders.

As Kathleen Kilpatrick, a former Pajaro Valley Unified School District school nurse turned advocate, who spends many hours studying plots of land and pesticide reports, put it: “There’s a lot of data available, but it’s not delivered in a very accessible way.”

A pesticide mapping tool
A pesticide mapping tool by state-sponsored environmental health group Tracking California shows the high percentage of pesticides used in the Pajaro Valley that are considered carcinogens by the state and federal governments. Click the map to check out the tool.

She is among many hardworking folks of the Pajaro Valley who say they have a hard time with blind faith, those who have seen too many co-workers and students battle asthma, cancer, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and learning disabilities. They wonder why what seem to them obvious cases of correlation haven’t yet resulted in scientifically proven causation.

They point to studies conducted at UC Berkeley and UCLA that trace the long-term health problems of farmworker children, outcomes that mirror those seen by Center for Farmworker Families advocate Ann Lopez and others in the Pajaro Valley.

Data
The most recent publicly available data provided by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation is from 2018. It shows the most-used chemicals are known are a “lung-damaging agent” and a “probable human carcinogen”: chloropicrin and 1,3-dichloropropene (also called Telone), respectively. Lookout was able to obtain more recent data on each fumigant from the CDPR; see chart below.

They wonder how they can believe in those stated protections when scientific studies of pesticide safety are routinely paid for by the chemical industry itself.

They wonder how they can trust government protections when pesticides have been heavily politicized, the Environmental Protection Agency swinging erratically back and forth in what chemicals it deems safe over the past two presidential administrations.

“The regulators — the Department of Pesticide Regulation and the county ag commissioners — need to take action,” said Mark Weller of the group Californians For Pesticide Reform. “But they act as if they’re in Dow’s back pocket.”

Even at the local level, among neighbors they’d like to put trust in, there is always a worry about how stringent rules and safety procedures are being followed in a county where three of the pesticides deemed most hazardous by the EPA, all banned in more than 30 other countries, are still used next to schools and neighborhoods in the Pajaro Valley.

The fact that Santa Cruz County Agricultural Commissioner Juan Hidalgo has issued 133 pesticide-related violations over the past three years is a clear indication to them that there are gaps in the safety precautions taken by those who use those chemicals.

“The current regulations don’t work,” said Scow. “It’s impossible to use such toxic chemicals in a way that doesn’t harm people or the soil.”

* * *

Adam Scow says he is one of many who have seen the science and have zero doubt organic farming techniques are better for public health. He is the environmental activist leading an aggressive awareness campaign, along with a new local group of doctors, teachers, farmworker advocates and citizens.

“There’s no question it’s safer and better all-around for the health of people in this community,” Scow said. “Even if it cut into their profits a little, isn’t the health of their community worth that?”

Pajaro Valley strawberry fields.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The state and federal governments have taken recent steps in that direction. On June 30, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law the 2022–23 state budget that includes $5 million for grants, technical assistance, education, and outreach to support farmers and ranchers to transition to organic. In August, the U.S. Department of Agriculture made a commitment of up to $300 million to help farmers make the organic conversion.

CORA, which formed late last year and began holding community awareness events in the Pajaro Valley, is following in the footsteps of many that have come before them.

The group got Miles Reiter’s attention via an impassioned letter — and it hopes to create a movement that Watsonville’s 52,000 residents can get behind and put pressure on politicians to respond with action.

The future of agriculture is part of the ballot equation in November.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

CORA’s campaign is part of a reflective moment for Watsonville on its agrarian future as those two opposing measures — S and Q — will decide whether opportunities for housing supply will potentially trump the retention of farmland.

A Watsonville City Council meeting slated for Oct. 11 will give the public a chance to hear from and address the state-appointed county ag commissioner, Hidalgo, about pesticide use in the Pajaro Valley. Hidalgo’s job is to oversee pesticide regulation and ultimately ensure the public’s long-term safety.

We want the Pajaro Valley to be a beacon for organic agriculture that provides good jobs and protects the health of our communities and our environment.

— Adam Scow

“We want the Pajaro Valley to be a beacon for organic agriculture that provides good jobs and protects the health of our communities and our environment,” Scow said. “There are successful organic farms in our valley leading the way and we’re asking the berry companies to respect the community by going organic near homes and schools.”

* * *

That 30-yard-wide dirt road between MacQuiddy and Reiter Nugent Ranch is one of many places across the Pajaro Valley where the lines between agriculture, the economic lifeblood of this community, and humanity, many living multiple families to a house, paycheck to paycheck, in homes that back right up to the fields, intersect in blurry ways.

“The things that we allow to happen to our community members here wouldn’t fly in places like Los Gatos or Saratoga,” Ann Lopez, executive director of the Center for Farmworker Families, told the assembled group that evening. “So why do we allow it to happen here?”

Dr. John Silva speaks in early September about what he sees with pesticide concerns.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Dr. John Silva, a family medicine specialist with the Natividad Medical Group in Salinas, told the group, including those farmworkers who had brought their sick children out to tell their stories, that he was saddened to be one of the few physicians unafraid to speak out on the topic.

But he was joined by Dr. Oscar Gantes from Salud Para La Gente in Watsonville, who also attested to what a community already ravaged inequitably by COVID-19 faces with the long-term effects of pesticide exposure becoming increasingly apparent.

Silva said the scientific data piling up is undeniable. Serious health conditions such as birth defects, autism, ADHD and brain cancer shouldn’t be occurring as frequently or at such a young age.

“Somebody may have won a Nobel Prize 100 years ago for these chemicals,” he said. “But they’ve outlived their usefulness in modern society, and they’ve begun to show in the last 25 years definitive and reproducible neurologic/behavioral poor outcomes, particularly in young human beings.”

A farmworker covers his face
A farmworker covers his face because of his undocumented status while telling the story of health problems affecting his family. Dr. Oscar Gantes of Salud Para La Gente looks on from the left.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Jovita Molina said her eyes teared up as she listened to the stories from farmworker families who they believe their children have been sickened by pesticide exposure.

Her tears reflected those in the eyes of two parents with blank looks on their faces, telling their story in Spanish, about their 8-year-old daughter who is battling leukemia. The parents have been driving her to Stanford monthly for chemotherapy and radiation treatment for two years.

“That could be me,” said the longtime Alianza Charter School librarian who comes from a farming family. “Those could be my children down the line or my grandchildren. Why aren’t we thinking about what the consequences are going to be for future generations?”

* * *

It wasn’t until 2018 that regulations made it mandatory for farmers to provide schools within a quarter-mile (or 1,300-foot) envelope of their fields a list of what chemicals they planned to spray.

Conventionally grown strawberry field acreage in the Pajaro Valley.
(Contributed)

A notification system was also implemented, but critics — including parents and teachers who formed the Monterey County-based group Safe Ag Safe Schools — say it is hampered by poor communication and transparency issues.

The complaints were loud enough to get the attention of a civil grand jury last year. But the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors largely pushed back on the findings of a 2021 civil grand jury report that advised county leadership to step up pressure on the state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation for a better notification system, saying the state is already working toward a system.

Before that statewide system gets implemented in 2023 or 2024, Santa Cruz County is among a small cohort participating in a state pilot program to increase awareness via text messaging and online posting.

The fields of Pajaro Valley.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

That awareness push has received a strong assist within the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, the district that administers all the public schools in the area. PVUSD’s Ohlone Elementary School has been at the forefront of the fight against fumigants. Teacher-led awareness campaigns have led to action against numerous toxic chemicals.

First it was a board resolution for more research on methyl bromide in 2010, then came a fight against methyl iodide in 2012. In 2016, there was pressure put on the Monterey County ag commissioner for tougher safety measures and better notification systems.

PVUSD Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez said she believes the pilot program, which stretches the notification area out to a mile — one of the things advocated for in 2016, but not accomplished — will help “augment our current notification process thus expanding information and notification to families.”

A group called CORA
A group called CORA led a gathering in early September to raise awareness that harmful pesticides are being used next to MacQuiddy Elementary.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Informed about the possible commitment of Driscoll’s and others to farming organically around the 18 zones where PVUSD schools meet farmland, Rodriguez noted the successful organic transition of Satsuma Farms near Ohlone Elementary after the school community raised the issue in 2017.

“We’ve had several farmers around other schools convert to organic farming,” she said. “It is a welcomed change for our students and staff as we believe it is safer for our educational community.”

PVUSD board member Maria Orozco, who is running for a Watsonville City Council seat, lauded the district’s effort to keep the community safe, including a ban on the use of glyphosate (the weed killer Roundup), and said a commitment to organic by growers would be a huge next step.

“As a city, we can all benefit from the lasting health and environmental impacts of organic farming,” she said. “From reducing pollution to improving the overall health of residents.”

Sarah Legions where MacQuiddy meets Reiter Nugent Ranch.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

One resident with fingers crossed is East Lake neighborhood mom and MacQuiddy teacher Sarah Legions.

The thought of Driscoll’s growers kicking off a trend that could spread throughout the valley brings a cautiously optimistic smile to her face. It would help counterbalance the psychological gymnastics she says she’s frequently endured living and teaching where she does.

“At first I was doing all kinds of research on what these pesticides might be doing to my family,” she said. “But eventually I had to stop. It was making me physically ill.”

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