Ag Today October 20, 2016

Proposed pesticide limits raise concerns among local farmers

Posted: Wednesday, October 19, 2016 11:25 pm

By Kyla Cathey/Special to the News-Sentinel

The California Department of Pesticide Regulation is proposing new limits on crop dusting, fumigation and the application of several other pesticides near school sites and day care centers.

“This regulation not only builds in additional layers of protection for students and school staff that are located in agricultural areas, but it also ensures meaningful communication between farmers and the schools and child day care facilities that are their neighbors,” Brian Leahy, director of the state Department of Pesticide Regulation, told the Los Angeles Times in September.

But Lodi-area growers, schools and agricultural officials say that they already have a good relationship, and the proposed regulation is not needed — and maybe a little unrealistic.

“There’s already measures in place to protect students in schools,” said Bruce Blodgett, executive director of the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation.

The proposed regulation would:

  • Create a quarter-mile buffer zone around rural schools.
  • Limit application of dust, powder, fumigant, and pesticides applied using an aircraft or airblast sprayer within that buffer zone to before 6 a.m., after 6 p.m., or weekends. The restrictions do not apply on days when no school is in session.
  • Prohibit the use of fumigants in the buffer zone if classes or child care are scheduled within 36 hours of the application.
  • Require that schools, day care centers and the county agricultural commissioner be notified by Oct. 1, 2017 of any pesticide use in the buffer zone between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2018. Beginning in 2018, schools must be notified by April 30 of all expected pesticide applications from July 1 of that year to June 30 of the following year.

Local school districts, growers and agricultural commissioners will be able to negotiate agreements that include additional requirements, if needed, the proposed regulation states.

According to the department, the proposal is meant to protect the health of the students and teachers at rural school sites.

“Concerns about the risks associated with pesticide use at or near schools and child day care facilities have persisted through the years due to children’s potentially increased sensitivity and exposure,” CDPR wrote in a statement about the reasoning behind the proposed regulations.

The new regulations are intended to offset potential issues caused by unintended pesticide drift, after acute illnesses due to pesticide use were documented in the state. While these cases are rare and the risk of children becoming ill is low, the department is seeking to prevent them from occurring at all.

“For the most part, I think it’s a good thing,” San Joaquin County Agricultural Commissioner Tim Pelican said. “A lot of the growers are following a lot of those guidelines already.”

That means there shouldn’t be many major changes for growers in the county, he said, especially those who already treat with pesticides at night or on weekends.

That doesn’t mean no changes, of course. Grape growers who use sulfur and farmers who use pesticides to get rid of ground squirrels, for example, may need to review their applications and make sure they would comply with the new requirements if they’re located near a school site.

But Blodgett said the similarity of the proposed regulation to existing safety guidelines show that it’s unnecessary.

The CDPR had good intentions, he said, but he believes the proposed regulation places new burdens on farmers without substantial new safety benefits.

“This is just another set of rules and regulations that are going to maybe trip up growers for doing the right thing,” he said.

Blodgett raised concerns about the inclusion of day care facilities, which he said are often difficult to find because they don’t have the same signage and activity as schools. Some are located in homes, he said; would they be required to disclose themselves to neighboring growers, or would farmers be responsible for keeping up with day care licenses being issued near their property?

The regulation also targets agricultural but not other uses of pesticides, Blodgett noted, pointing out that as written, the regulation would not require railroads, the California Department of Transportation, or even schools themselves to provide official notice to the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office when using pesticides within that quarter-mile buffer.

“That’s all this is about, just targeting farmers. It’s not about safety at all. The rules are already in place for safety,” he said.

For Joe Valente of Kautz Farms, the proposal just adds uncertainty to something that’s already common practice.

“We do farm by a school — actually, two of them — and I think some of the practices they’re proposing we’ve been doing voluntarily for a number of years. When kids are in schools, you just don’t spray,” he said.

But the proposal adds new questions: Is the quarter-mile buffer a line, and the part of a field outside that line can be sprayed during school hours? Or if part of a field lies inside the buffer zone, does that mean the whole field is off limits?

He echoed Blodgett’s concerns about finding the locations of day care centers. He knows they have to be licensed by the state, but who does he talk to in order to get a list of those near his land? If a new one pops up nearby, is the center or the state responsible for notifying him, or is he expected to find out somehow?

Valente also thinks it’s strange that the regulation would only apply to agriculture, when someone could own large property right across from a school and spray to kill weeds during school hours. If the land isn’t agricultural, that would be allowed under the proposal, even though the effect is similar, he said.

Farms already spray on weekends, overnight or during school holidays, Valente said — not just to protect children generally, but also because most of their own children and grandchildren attend rural schools.

“We fully understand you don’t want to be spraying when kids are at school. That’s common sense,” he said.

Beverly Boone, principal and superintendent for Oak View School in Acampo, said the school already has an excellent relationship with its neighbors, and nearby growers are already following most of the proposed guidelines.

“We have never had a pesticide issue come up, most likely because they apply when school is not in session,” she said.

There were a few ideas in the proposal that she felt were reasonable, such as notifications about pesticide use nearby, which would be helpful for schools when planning outdoor activities, she said.

“At the same time, being a rural school district we are extremely sensitive to the importance of agriculture and the needs of growers in our community,” she said.

The CDPR estimates that the proposed regulation will have a total cost of less than $10 million to growers statewide.

In its statement, the CDPR writes that the proposed regulation is primarily intended to prevent school and day care sites from being affected by unintended pesticide drift. The department cites a 2011 study of illnesses caused by pesticide drift, which disproportionately affected children — though it admitted that these cases were all before new federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations on fumigation were instituted in 2012.

A 2014 case of herbicide drift near Bouldin Island damaged a number of Lodi-area crops, but was not believed to be a health concern, according to news reports at the time. Officials were still investigating the incident in the beginning of 2016.

If the CDPR really wants to help both schools and growers, they’re going about it the wrong way, Valente said. He pointed out that the department is only holding two public meetings, both south of Fresno.

“If you truly want to hear from the public, you put them throughout the state,” he said.

He does believe the requirements to improve communication laid out in the proposal would be helpful, but they need work.

For example, it would be helpful for school districts to make their schedules available to nearby growers, including afterschool activities — that way, a grower doesn’t schedule spraying for 8 p.m., only to find a soccer game is going until 9. When farmers renew their pesticide permits each year, the state could provide them with a list of all schools and day care centers near their property, he added.

And it makes sense for growers to also notify schools, but the requirement to provide schools with a list of pesticides that would be used for the next year is unrealistic, he said. The pesticide products they use change depending on weather, wet or dry conditions, if invasive species pop up, if they more or less than usual of certain pests, and more.

“They want a list of the products we’ll be using, but a lot of times we don’t know,” he said.

He suggested that the CDPR sit down with farmers and schools to come up with a revised proposal that’s more reasonable.

Pelican urges growers submit comments about the proposal to the CDPR, especially if they will be affected by the new requirements.

“The way I look at it, if you don’t comment, you can’t complain,” he said.