Ag Today, September 9, 2016

Local grape grower slapped with $10,000 fine

BY STEVEN MAYER smayer@bakersfield.com

A state regulatory agency has fined a Kern County grape grower $10,000 after an illegal pesticide was detected on his harvested crop.

The enforcement action came after the California Department of Pesticide Regulation’s residue monitoring program detected the pesticide Dimethoate last month on grapes at a wholesale store in Los Angeles County, a spokeswoman for the department said Thursday. State and federal law prohibit the use of this pesticide on grapes — although the chemical is allowed to be used on many other crops to protect them from insects, including mites, flies and aphids.

After the department’s initial discovery, a subsequent investigation was conducted at M Kooner Farms in Arvin by the Kern County Agricultural Commissioner and the DPR. The tests at Kooner’s 43-acre vineyard at South Comanche Drive and El Camino Real again detected the pesticide on the vineyard’s grapes.

Charlotte Fadipe, a spokeswoman for the state agency, said Thursday that officials were initially surprised by the discovery, despite the fact that inspectors test some 3,500 produce samples annually from wholesale and retail stores, farmers markets and other outlets.

“It is very rare that we find California growers breaking the rules,” she said.

Violations of pesticide regulations are more likely to be found during inspections of imported fruit, Fadipe said.

“Most California growers know the rules and abide by them.”

Reached late Thursday afternoon, Nazar Kooner, the brother of Major Kooner, said the grapes were indeed improperly sprayed with Dimethoate, but that the application was unintentional.

An adjacent field with a crop that allowed the use of the pesticide had previously been sprayed, and the operator of the pesticide applicator did not clean the machine before moving on to the grape vineyard.

“My brother has been farming for 30 years and has never had this happen before,” he said.

Although the error was unintentional, Kooner said his brother accepted responsibility for the violation and agreed to pay the $10,000 fine.

DPR Director Brian Leahy said in a statement Thursday that quick action by the department sends a strong signal to growers that breaking the rules will not be tolerated.

“The vigorous enforcement of California’s pesticide regulations by county agricultural commissioners and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation helps to ensure that growers responsibly apply pesticides in legally determined ways.”

The investigation, officials said, found two major violations:

Using a pesticide in a manner that conflicts with the registered label

Unlawful packing, shipping or selling of produce that carries pesticide in excess of the permissible level.

In a settlement agreement signed by Major Kooner on Sept. 1, the grower agreed with the DPR’s findings and admitted to violating California Food and Agricultural Code sections.

He further agreed to pay the fine by Oct. 15. In exchange, the department agreed to take no further civil or criminal action against him related to this case.

According to the agreement, before any grapes from the vineyard are transferred or sold, they must be “reconditioned” and tested to show they are no longer in violation. Reconditioning can involve washing or other means to bring the produce into compliance.

The grower’s run-in with state officials also means he could be under further scrutiny.

Said Fadipe, “He’s now on our radar.”