Watsonville City Council supports organic conversion from pesticides near area schools

A farmworker who spoke during a city council meeting about the impact of pesticides on his family holds his son.
An audience member holds a sign during Tuesday’s meeting of the Watsonville City Council.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

“I’ll be a supportive voice wherever you might need,” council member Maria Orozco told a crowd supporting the conversion of school-adjacent farms from pesticide use to organic methods Tuesday evening. By one estimate, only 18 of the 67 farms within a quarter-mile of schools in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District use organic farming.

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A group of Pajaro Valley community members, led by Watsonville group Campaign for Organic and Regenerative Agriculture (CORA), continued its long-standing demand that farms stop spraying pesticides near schools and go organic as they addressed a meeting of Watsonville City Council on Tuesday evening.

In response, all six present city council members (Kristal Salcido was absent) said they supported the passage of a resolution supporting those efforts. Further, the council members signaled their intention to call leaders from the area’s agricultural industry to testify at a future date on their conversion-to-organic plans.

“I’ll be a supportive voice wherever you might need,” said council member Maria Orozco.

No vote was taken on passing a resolution, but Mayor Eduardo Montesino and other council members said city staff will start drafting it.

“You saw everyone is supportive of these efforts — we don’t want to see families and kids harmed,” Montesino said. “We’re all supportive of your efforts and look for that resolution pretty soon.”

In a presentation, CORA laid out its argument about how vulnerable populations, including children and older adults, are particularly susceptible to pesticides. Of the 67 farms that are within a quarter-mile of schools in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, only 18 use organic methods, the group said.

Adam Scow, CORA co-founder, discusses the group's mission to prohibit pesticide-use on farms near schools.
Adam Scow, CORA co-founder, discusses the group’s mission to prohibit pesticide use on farms near schools.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

CORA co-founder Adam Scow said the group’s priority is to have all farms near schools go organic. Indeed, Scow said, the group’s wider goal is to see the entire Pajaro Valley stop using pesticides altogether.

“We feel it’s very reasonable to ask the major companies, Driscoll’s for example, that they make a commitment to go organic, around the city and the schools,” he said. “If anybody can afford to do it, it’s these companies like Driscoll’s.”

He said he was happy with the response of the city council. Further, Scow said CORA awaits updates on farm conversion from Driscoll’s, a global leader in berry production. Driscoll’s CEO Miles Reiter met with the group in December to discuss such conversion.

“It was a positive conversation, but we really would love to see a commitment to make this happen,” said Scow. “So we’re inviting the city councilors to help us.”

Several farmworker families also spoke at the meeting, expressing certainty that pesticides had caused their children’s medical conditions, ranging from learning disabilities to hearing loss.

Center for Farmworker Families executive director Ann Lopez added that many farmworkers themselves have experienced vomiting and fainting while working in the fields. However, she said, when she has called the office of the Santa Cruz County agricultural commissioner to do an inspection, investigators have found farmworkers scared to speak up.

Lopez, who has worked with farmworker families for decades, said the majority of farm workers in the area are undocumented. Because of their status, they feel that if they speak up, they’ll face deportation or retaliation. Families report their children have conditions including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, learning disabilities, autism and asthma, she said.

“This is rampant in this area,” she said. “Something needs to be done about this.”

A farmworker named Carlos holds his son on April 25, 2023.
A farmworker named Carlos, who spoke during a Watsonville City Council meeting about the impact of pesticides on his family, holds his son.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )


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