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Strawberry Fields Forever in Need of Chemicals

February 6, 1996

WATSONVILLE, Calif. (AP) _ Half a century ago, Mike Miller’s grandfather planted a strawberry field in the heart of the nation’s berry capital.

That was when farmers battled bugs and fungi without chemicals.

But Miller, 42, was raised in the era of methyl bromide, a powerful fumigant pumped into the soil to kill bugs and weeds. The third-generation grower says banning that chemical would devastate the strawberry industry.

``We’d be back to where we were before fumigation. The price would go way up and the (number of) consumers would go way down,″ he said. ``And the people who’d be most impacted by this are the farmers.″

Unfortunately, say critics, what kills bugs can harm humans, too.

In 1984, the state’s Birth Defects Prevention Act required that pesticide makers submit health risk studies by March 1991 or face a production ban. The deadline for methyl bromide was extended to March 30, 1996.

Legislation to push the deadline back again, to Dec. 31, 1997, is pending in the state Senate. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to ban production starting in 2001.

Still, Miller says he hasn’t given much thought to life without it. ``Either I’ll be able to continue or I won’t. If I can’t make money, I won’t do it,″ he said.

The EPA estimates the United States uses about 56 million pounds of methyl bromide a year fumigating soil, termite-infested buildings and post-harvest imports and exports. California uses 18 million pounds, mostly to fumigate soil for strawberries, carrots, grapes and flowers.

Strawberries are especially dependent upon the chemical because the fruit is prone to disease and expensive to plant. The plants grow in long strips no more than 10 inches high, and must be picked by hand several times a week during the long harvesting season.

Sixty years ago, farmers discovered they could sterilize the soil with a mixture of methyl bromide and chloropicrin, a wartime tear gas. The chemical doesn’t taint the fruit.

Strawberry yields rose, making the fruit affordable to more Americans and guaranteeing growers a comfortable profit.

But there are problems. Methyl bromide may help deplete the ozone layer that protects humans from cancer-causing sun rays.

The United Farm Workers says repeated exposure can lead to numbness, muscle spasms and convulsions, and can cause birth defects.

Scientists say they need more time to come up with an alternative. But an all-in-one chemical substitute is unlikely, said Doug Gubler, a plant pathologist with the University of California-Davis.

Jim Cochran, who grows strawberries and vegetables on 45 acres in Watsonville and Davenport, says it’s not easy making the switch from chemicals to organic methods, as he did 13 years ago.

He rotates strawberries, a cover crop of barley and beans, and vegetables, a process that replenishes the soil and fights bugs and disease naturally.

As a result, his costs are about double Miller’s, his yield is about a third lower and consumers pay twice as much as they would for Miller’s chemically treated strawberries.

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