Lookout Update: Pesticide activists meet with Driscoll’s leaders, say organic transition details remain ‘unclear’

Conventionally farmed fields adjacent to Watsonville's Alianza Charter School.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

As South County continues to grapple with the reality of pesticide sprays next to schools and neighborhoods, a group of activists that includes doctors, educators and health advocates is attempting to push the world’s largest berry producer to convert its Watsonville fields to organic.

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An update on South County pesticide use

Pajaro Valley activists leading a vocal fight against pesticide use near students and families went to Driscoll’s headquarters Monday to meet with CEO Miles Reiter and other leaders of the multinational berry giant.

Their request: “That he direct his growers to convert their berry fields to organic near schools and neighborhoods around Watsonville.”

“We shared our concerns about the ongoing use of toxic and cancer-causing pesticides near several Pajaro Valley Unified schools,” the group said in a statement to Lookout.

They say they left the meeting without hearing any specific plans for organic expansion — “the amount of acres and timeline for transition is unclear” — and a feeling that their work is far from done.

“We will continue to remain in touch with Mr. Reiter and his team,” the statement said. “The health of our children, environment and soil are too important to allow the status quo to continue.”

Reiter did not reply to requests for comment about the meeting or specific future plans for organic expansion. Nor did his nephew Eric Reiter, who runs Reiter Affiliated’s West Coast operations, and previously spoke to Lookout about organic conversion plans.

However, the group said Reiter indicated to the three members of the Campaign for Organic & Regenerative Agriculture (CORA) who visited Driscoll’s — Ann Lopez, Jovita Molina and Providence Alaniz — that there are plans to go organic in at least one field directly adjacent to an elementary school, Reiter Nugent Farms.

“We shared our concerns about the ongoing use of toxic and cancer-causing pesticides near several Pajaro Valley Unified Schools including MacQuiddy Elementary, Ann Soldo Elementary, Amesti Elementary, Pajaro Valley High School, and others,” the statement said.

It added: “While Mr. Reiter stated that more berries at Nugent Ranch, located directly behind MacQuiddy and across the street from Ann Soldo, will go organic, the amount of acres and timeline for transition is unclear. Recent reports reveal that approximately one-third of Nugent Ranch is already farmed organically, and CORA is requesting that the remaining acres transition as well.”

In the statement, CORA leaders said their request of Reiter is very specific and that they hope to get a more specific reply from Driscoll’s leadership soon.

It said the group “stands by our request that all fields near schools and neighborhoods in the Watsonville area that are under contract by Driscoll’s/Reiter Berry and its affiliates, transition to organic and we will be sharing more specific details about that soon.”

The background

It was a mid-September afternoon that CORA and other community activists gathered local media to the small dirt patch that separates the playground at MacQuiddy Elementary from the conventionally grown blackberry field at Reiter Nugent Ranch.

What the group, which included several local doctors, was seeking was printed on a banner being held by farmworkers and their children, many of whom those parents said they believe are suffering from cognitive diseases and other physical ailments related to pesticide exposure.

Retired teacher Woody Rehanek speaks as farmworkers and their children look on.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“STOP poisoning our kids — go ORGANIC!” it read.

Later that day the group sent an email to Reiter, asking him to take action with growers under contract with Driscoll’s/Reiter Berry. Reiter’s reply, obtained by Lookout, maintained that growers were the ones who decide whether to use organic or conventional methods, not Driscoll’s.

In a follow-up interview with Lookout, Reiter expressed some similar trepidation around how it would work — and what a timeline might look like, especially considering the three-year process required to turn a conventional field to organic — but didn’t deny it was a logical goal.

“To move, over time, to growing more organically in town, and especially near schools, just makes sense for everybody,” he said.

His nephew Eric Reiter, who runs Reiter Affiliated’s West Coast operations based out of Oxnard, presented a more bullish take on an organic push and indicated discussions were already ongoing at both companies.

“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.”

What comes next?

In October, CORA and Santa Cruz County Agricultural Commissioner Juan Hidalgo were summoned to present information to the Watsonville City Council.

The same group of farmworker families that had appeared at MacQuiddy Elementary the previous month came to the meeting and spoke via interpreter for the record on their children’s health problems and their belief that pesticide exposure is to blame.

The council agreed to put another meeting on the January agenda that will go beyond just information and create more dialogue around problem-solving. What the city council can ultimately do, other than offer a ceremonial proclamation in support of organic that could put pressure on companies like Driscoll’s, is in question.

County supervisor-elect Felipe Hernandez went on the record with caution during his October debate with Jimmy Dutra, saying he worried about the financial effect on growers if they were forced to go organic suddenly.

“We’ve got to look out for the farmers, too,” Hernandez said.

CORA co-leader Adam Scow told Lookout that the group would have liked to see a more detailed plan from Driscoll’s but believes keeping dialogue open is an important first step.

“Ultimately the words matter less than the action,” he said. “The commitment to taking real action on a real timeline is what we’re looking for.”

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