Quick Take:

Students, farmworkers and doctors urged the state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation to restrict the use of harmful pesticides and push farmers to adopt organic practices during a gathering Monday in Watsonville. Residents shared personal stories of health issues, calling for greater protection for farmworkers and their communities. Some speakers drove from hundreds of miles away to participate in the meeting. The department will consider public comments before finalizing a new strategic plan.

Dozens of students, farmworkers and health care professionals gathered in Watsonville on Monday to make a range of demands, including that the state immediately restrict the use of harmful pesticides and require agricultural operations adopt organic farming practices.

Watsonville High School senior Rocio Ortiz, 17, said her family has been dramatically affected by the use of pesticides. Both of her parents are from Oaxaca, Mexico, and were strawberry farmworkers locally for more than 20 years.

“Recently my dad moved to Mexico because of health problems,” she said. “We think it’s the pesticides that caused his health problems — nausea and headaches.”

Ortiz spoke at the meeting along with about 60 other concerned residents — some of whom drove from as far away as Ventura, nearly 300 miles to the south. The meeting was the second of four opportunities for the public to comment on the California Department of Pesticide Regulation’s 2024-28 strategic plan draft. Because the other meetings are either in Tulare or being held virtually, people from Greenfield, Santa Maria and Ventura drove to the Watsonville meeting to have a chance to speak in person.

Karen Morrison, the DPR chief deputy director, gave a brief presentation on the draft of the strategic plan before dozens of speakers spoke for over 90 minutes. The speakers ranged from retired teachers to doctors and therapists and organic farmers — the vast majority of whom called for ending the use of harmful pesticides. County agricultural commissioners, including Monterey County and former Santa Cruz County commissioner Juan Hidalgo, attended the meeting as well.

The draft of the strategic plan includes four broad goals and 15 subgoals. The goals include plans to increase access to safe, effective, sustainable pest management; track, evaluate and enforce safe pesticide use; foster engagement, collaboration and transparency; and promote excellence and innovation.

Victor Torres, a 17-year-old Greenfield High School senior, said the plan doesn’t come close to doing enough for keeping farmworkers, their families and the broader communities safe.

“I was a victim of pesticide exposure at a young age in which I had to be rushed to the hospital,” he said. “Many of the pesticides applied that day that caused my asthma attack are still on the market and used throughout the state.”

For example, Torres said the plan’s timeline to start “mitigating” two pesticides annually at some point in the next five years is far too slow to reduce their impact.

Torres and Ortiz are part of different chapters of Safe Ag Safe Schools, a coalition of more than 30 organizations and individuals advocating for reducing the use of pesticides.

Dr. Valerie Bengal, a family physician who worked in the Salinas and Pajaro valleys for over 40 years taking care of farmworkers, said she and other health care professionals learned over time how to recognize the signs of pesticide poisonings.

“Now, it’s more insidious, some of these are long-term gradual effects,” she said. “As other speakers said, it can be cumulative, it can be from multiple, different chemicals.”

Bengal criticized the state’s plan as being “wishy-washy” because it does not take a definitive action.

“I’m glad you came here but you need to be more involved,” she said. “This is a human rights and civil rights and public health problem.”

Jessica Gonzalez, also a 17-year-old Watsonville High senior, said she went to the meeting because her parents and several other family members are farmworkers. Also recently part of Safe Ag Safe Schools, Gonzalez said it feels good to join the group to advocate for reduced pesticide use.

“It made me really happy that there’s someone out there trying to make changes,” she said.

Morrison, the DPR chief deputy director, said after the department finalizes receiving comments from the public, management staff will incorporate the comments into the final draft by the end of the year.

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After three years of reporting on public safety in Iowa, Hillary joins Lookout Santa Cruz with a curious eye toward the county’s education beat. At the Iowa City Press-Citizen, she focused on how local...