Thursday, May 5, 2016
Growing psyllid problem prompts public meetings
By David Castellon
A public meeting will be held today for California Department of Food and Agriculture officials to discuss their plans to spray a northwest Visalia neighborhood for Asian citrus psyllids after two of the insects were found there.
But before that meeting, the CDFA will hold a separate meeting in Tulare starting this morning — followed by a second on Friday — to get input from growers, packers, nursery operators and other members of the commercial citrus industry to discuss possible changes in California’s regulations to prevent the spread of psyllids.
The gnat-sized insects are capable of carrying huanglongbing — also known as “HLB” — a bacteria that can kill citrus trees and has devastated citrus crops around the world, including Florida.
Large numbers of Asian citrus psyllids have been found in Southern California, with a few found to be infected with HLB, and the fear in the citrus industry is that infected insects will make their way into Central California, the state’s main citrus-producing region, and cause devastation to crops.
Several psyllids have been found from Kern and Tulare counties up to the Bay Area, though all found so far – north of Southern California – either tested negative for HLB or the insects were too desiccated for scientists to determine if they were infected.
In March and April alone, 19 psyllids have been caught in insect traps at 10 Tulare County locations, including residential neighborhoods in Visalia and Tulare.
One of those finds, involving two psyllids discovered March 23 in a trap near West Hillsdale Avenue and South Tamarack Street in Visalia, is prompting tonight’s meeting at the Visalia Veterans Memorial Building. CDFA officials are expected to discuss plans to spray home citrus trees in the surrounding neighborhoods to kill off any psyllids in the area.
CDFA officials didn’t return repeated calls Wednesday to inquire about their plans, but Marilyn Kinoshita, Tulare County’s agricultural commissioner, said that generally state officials have sprayed an 800-meter area around each psyllid find.
Other recent psyllid finds include residential areas of Tulare — a couple just a few blocks from the Ag Commissioner’s office — but it wasn’t clear when CDFA officials may schedule additional public meetings on neighborhood spraying plans for Tulare.
The new psyllid finds have raised concerns about how the insects are making their way here from Southern California.
Some of the recent finds here have been close to freeways and truck stops, and 10 psyllids were found in two traps outside a Tipton juice processing plant, where trucks hauling citrus from around the state come to deliver fruit.
Before leaving Southern California, oranges, lemons and other citrus has to be mechanically brushed off and washed to ensure no psyllids or stems — which the insects feed on — are found on the fruit.
With the insect finds so close to where trucks are found and the juice plant, Kinoshita said it has raised questions of whether some growers or packer are skirting the measures they’re supposed to take to prevent psyllids from “hitching” rides north — though there is no definite way to know for sure how the psyllids made their way here.
Other possibilities include the insects flying into the driving compartments of citrus-hauling trucks in Southern California and flying out when drivers opened their doors and windows after arriving here.
“We just hope that everybody rolls down their [window] and tries to flush out their vehicles in Southern California,” so they don’t transport any citrus psyllids north, Kinoshita said.
As for the possibility of people in the citrus industry not following the rules to prevent the spread of the insects, Kinoshita said that considering the threat the insects pose to California’s citrus industry, it’s hard to imagine.
Still, “I think that is the concern,” said Chris Stambach, director of industry relations for California Citrus Mutual, the Exeter-based trade association representing about 2,200 California citrus growers.
He said his organization supports refining the system for enforcing the regulations on moving citrus out of quarantined areas of the state to better ensure compliance.
“Everybody in the industry understands how deadly it is,” he said of the disease.
These concerns likely will be brought up during the two meetings CDFA’s Citrus Pest & Disease Prevention Committee is putting on this morning and Friday morning at the county Ag Commissioner’s meeting room.
In an online posting, the committee states that because of the possibility so much of the state being quarantined due to psyllid and HLB finds that the entire state could be subject to a U.S. Department of Agriculture quarantine.
If that were to happen, movement of citrus fruit and trees within the state would cease to be regulated, so the state committee has suggested that the main citrus-growing areas of the state — Central and Southern California — be divided into four zones in which fruit would have to be washed and covered before it could be trucked out of a zone.
Under that proposal, Tulare County and most of the rest of the Valley would be one zone, called the “San Joaquin Area.”
The others are the “Coastal,” “Desert” and “East Bay” areas.
Fresno Business Journal
Dairies dread proposed climate change regulations
By George Lurie
Already struggling with rock-bottom milk prices, Valley dairies are bracing for more pain after the California Air Resources Board (CARB) issued a set of proposed new climate change regulations calling for a 75-percent reduction in overall methane emissions from the state’s dairies by 2030.
CARB’s plan to drastically curtail Golden State greenhouse gas emissions was outlined in a draft document released by the powerful state agency last week.
“It’s not clear to anyone how we might meet” the goals set by the new CARB report, said Paul Sousa, director of environmental services and regulatory affairs for Western United Dairymen.
“The report points to a vague regulatory process to begin next year affecting dairies,” Sousa said. “In our conversations with CARB, they have indicated that they likely will start with requiring larger dairies to calculate and report their greenhouse gas emissions followed by additional regulations.”
CARB will be holding workshops this week in Sacramento and in Bakersfield next week as the agency seeks input from dairymen and dairy officials on its greenhouse gas reduction proposal. Dairymen in the Fresno and Visalia area will be able to participate in the workshops through video conferencing hookups at the Air Board’s Fresno and Modesto offices.
Among other things, CARB’s latest proposal would require dairies to significantly upgrade manure management practices and also reduce enteric fermentation emissions — known as cow burps — by 25 percent by 2030.
Air Board officials say California’s methane emissions can be cut considerably by converting from flush water lagoons to so-called “solid-scrape” or dry-manure management systems.
Sousa has met with CARB officials recently and voiced WUD’s concerns that the new methane reduction targets are “beyond ambitious.”
“The way to achieve the manure management emissions reduction is to prevent manure from being stored in a lagoon with water by converting from flush to scrape and dry handling — or to capture the methane emissions in a digester,” Sousa said. “It has been estimated that if the dairy industry was going to meet the 2030 goal [of 75 percent reduction] using only digesters, we would have to install digesters on the 600 largest dairies in the state.”
In the past 15 years, only about two-dozen digesters have been built in California —and only 13 of those are still in operation today.
Sousa likened the prospect of installing 600 new digesters in the next 15 years to “Moses’ parting of the Red Sea.”
But not everyone was skeptical of the new CARB emissions reduction plan. Environmental groups around the state hailed the proposal and expressed hope that it would lead to more so-called “pasture-based” dairy farming in the Central Valley.
Pasture-oriented dairies produce far less methane and are more common in Northern California, employing manure as fertilizer rather than stockpiling it in on-site lagoons, as is the common practice on most Central Valley dairies.
Tipton dairyman Frank Mendonsa says pasture-oriented dairying just won’t work in the Central Valley.
“It’s not a viable option,” said Mendonsa, who operates several large dairies south of Tulare. “With pasture-oriented dairying, you would have to reduce cow numbers so much it would be prohibitive for most dairies. There is just not enough pasture land in this part of the state to make it work.”
In their latest proposal, Air Board officials, while refraining from insisting Central Valley dairies adopt pasture-based practices, are encouraging dairymen to embrace various methane-reduction strategies, including capturing their herds’ emissions for on-site biogas energy generation — or processing and selling those emissions to utilities.
CARB’s draft proposal details how dairies can “make money reducing their methane emissions” by qualifying for grants or credits currently available from various state and federal agencies. The proposal also includes an economic analysis detailing costs and potential revenues related to reducing methane.
CARB hopes to gather public input on the methane-reduction plan over the coming months and could finalize and adopt the proposal later this fall. But Air Board officials stressed that dairymen around the Valley would not have to comply with the new regulations for at least several more years.
In a note to Western United members, Sousa pointed out that on a national basis over the last 70 years, dairies have reduced their “carbon hoofprint” by over 60 percent per gallon of milk produced.
“However, it will take a significant investment from the state to accelerate that pace and put infrastructure in place to even get part of the way to [CARB’s] overly aggressive goals,” added Sousa, who encouraged dairymen around the state to attend the CARB workshops and “voice your opinion on what this means to California dairies in light of all the other regulations and economics affecting California dairy families.”
Courthouse News Service
Group Wants Peek at Foster Farms’ Water Bill
By Julie Baker-Dennis
MERCED, Calif. (CN) — An animal rights group has demanded water-use details from a Central Valley town where Foster Farms slaughters and processes poultry, saying residents suffer through drought restrictions that don’t apply to the chicken giant.
Animal Legal Defense Fund asked a Merced County Superior Court judge to order the city of Livingston to release its water-use data, calling the town of 13,000 “the worst-performing city in California in terms of the state standards” even though residents have severely restricted their water usage.
Foster Farms is not a party to the petition.
The fund, a nonprofit that advocates for more humane treatment of animals, often uses public records to support its mission to file “high-impact lawsuits to protect animals from harm.”
It says it wants Livingston’s water-use records in order to better understand how the city’s water is being used, especially since city officials blamed its water woes on Foster Farms when residents who have diligently restricted their usage including only irrigating twice a week reacted strongly to the deflating news of missed conservation targets.
The city refused to provide the group with the requested documents in an October 2015 letter stating utility-usage data is exempt from disclosure, the April 28 mandate petition states.
Two months before that letter was sent, the State Water Resources Control Board issued an alternative compliance order which stated Livingston was almost 30 percent behind conservation standards mandated by California Gov. Jerry Brown in April 2015 to restrict water usage by 25 percent statewide.
As part of the published alternative compliance order, the board ordered the city to continue to engage Foster Farms by working with them on recycling wastewater, process-efficiency programs and monitor fixtures and landscaping. Meanwhile, the board told Livingston to amp its efforts to educate residents on the drought measures and to continue residential watering limits.
But while noting that last month state scientists said that almost 90 percent of the state is still experiencing drought conditions and 74 percent of California is in extreme drought, the animal rights group says Foster Farms continues to use a disproportionate amount of Livingston’s water — and wants to know exactly how much.
“When Livingston missed the water reduction target mandated by the state, its inhabitants expressed surprise and confusion in the media,” the group says in its petition. “They noted they had been severely restricted in their personal water usage — for example, irrigation is only allowed twice a week. A state official further explained that if residents were asked to shoulder the entire burden of the mandated reduction, individuals would have to survive on just 11 gallons a day, an amount an amount inadequate to ensure health and sanitation.
“Meanwhile, Livingston city officials disclosed that Foster Farms uses over two-thirds of the city’s water — 4 to 5 million gallons per day, or 1.46 to 1.825 billion gallons per year,” the group says.
Foster Farms is the city’s largest employer, and is the largest private employer in all of Merced County. Accordingly, Livingston officials “rush to defend it in the media whenever it faces criticism about its practices,” the group’s petition says.
“Slaughterhouses use disproportionately large quantities of water in their daily operations. Specifically, massive amounts of water are used to scald and clean carcasses, and to clean the plant surface areas and equipment.”
The group notes that Livingston has justified missing Brown’s water conservation goals — effectively blaming Foster Farms — but also refuses to release any records to support its assertions.
“In times of severe drought, transparency regarding water usage is more important than ever. Californians are doing their best to conserve water. They have a right — a right codified in the California Public Records Act and enshrined in the California Constitution — to access government records for the purposes of seeing the effects that agricultural producers are having on water conservation efforts,” the group says, asking the court to order the release of the records it has requested.
Livingston officials did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
The fund is represented Rebecca Cross of the San Francisco firm Braunhagey & Borden and by its in-house attorneys Christopher Berry and Carter Dillard.
Eva Schueller, an attorney at BraunHagey & Borden, said, “It’s difficult to think of an issue as urgent and important to California residents as the catastrophic drought we’ve been facing for years. Yet there is little direct information on which to base a rigorous analysis of the amount of water used by the state’s animal agriculture facilities.
“Livingston’s vague refusal to disclose its water usage records – particularly in light of the city’s failure to meet state mandated water conservation standards and city officials’ own admission that water issues are of enormous public concern – flies in the face of the government transparency promised by the California Public Records Act.”
Foster Farms declined to comment on the matter.
OID wins first round in lawsuit over water sales, fallowed land
By Garth Stapley
A judge declined Wednesday to halt the Oakdale Irrigation District’s evolving plan to idle some farmland and sell water not needed for that land.
The district has not revealed – to the public or its own board of directors – how its fallowing program has changed, other than to say that previous prospective buyers no longer are involved.
Attorney Osha Meserve accused OID of “mixing and matching and a little fancy dancing,” and urged Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Timothy Salter to have the district clarify its intent.
“What are they doing with the water that’s saved?” Meserve asked. “They need to answer the question, otherwise these excuses don’t make sense.”
OID’s attorney, Tim O’Laughlin, acknowledged “misconception about what’s happening with the water” and said he would help clear it up. He and two attorneys representing prospective buyers south of the Delta said their deal was off, but none clarified how the fallowing program will continue under undisclosed new terms, including whether other buyers have or will be courted and how much money the water might fetch.
Without explaining, Salter ruled in OID’s favor.
Louis Brichetto and Robert Frobose, who are growers and OID customers, had sued to stop the water transfer, contending that OID should conduct an in-depth study of environmental consequences of shipping water elsewhere. They’ll get another chance to make a case before Judge William Mayhew on May 18, in a motion with less urgency.
In addition to environmental concerns, plaintiffs have accused OID board member Gary Osmundson, also a farmer, of “self-dealing,” or casting a vote favoring the fallowing program to enrich himself. The 105 acres he intends to fallow – about one-sixth of the 605 acres whose owners had signed up for the program, as of last week – could put $119,000 in his pocket, under terms approved by the board majority on March 15. Meserve said his vote violated state law preventing conflicts of interest by public officials.
Brichetto and Frobose filed a criminal complaint over Osmundson’s vote with Oakdale police and were told that the matter has been referred to the California Fair Political Practices Commission, a state agency enforcing such laws, Frobose said.
Osmundson, who attended the hearing Wednesday, previously said he received legal advice clearing him to vote because all OID customers were invited to apply for the fallowing program.
Calling it the On-Farm Conservation Program, OID initially intended to ship 9,000 to 10,000 acre-feet of water south for $400 an acre-foot, bringing in about $4 million. Participating farmers would receive 20 percent of proceeds in cash and spend 75 percent on efficiency upgrades, and the district would keep 5 percent. OID court papers indicate the formula remains intact, but O’Laughlin said the district expects the program to shrink to about 3,000 acre-feet of freed-up water.
The On-Farm program is separate from another water transfer that is now swelling the Stanislaus River. That “pulse flow” water, belonging to OID and its Tri-Dam partner, the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, is helping propel young salmon toward the ocean, and will be captured near the Delta and routed south to buyers paying the two districts $9.75 million each.
OID and SSJID sales and environmental documents state that water sold in OID’s On-Farm fallowing program would join water released in the current pulse flow. But O’Laughlin and the attorneys representing buyers all told the judge the opposite, without clarifying new fallowing terms.
“The transfer is not happening,” said Rebecca Akroyd, representing the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority.
OID board member Gail Altieri attended the hearing and said afterward that the board has not been told of a change in the fallowing program. She and board member Linda Santos had opposed that deal when it was approved in March; both were elected in November after campaigning to bring transparency to the board.
The OID board is scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. May 17 – a day before the next lawsuit hearing – in the board chamber at 1205 E. F St., Oakdale.
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390, firstname.lastname@example.org
Santa Maria Sun
Growers, residents in Santa Maria area clash over housing for H2-A farmworkers
By Brenna Swanston
On Wednesday, April 6, an unfinished house in Nipomo burned down in a late-night fire.
It wasn’t just any house—it was one of the seven three-bedroom homes that, upon completion, would make up a development called Mads Place. Mads Place was set to host up to 112 people—that’s 16 per house—under H-2A, a federal program for temporary foreign farmworkers.
Once neighbors caught wind of the development’s purpose, controversy sparked. And then a fire sparked. And then Greg and Donna France, who were purchasing the development to house workers for their berry farm, pulled the H-2A project.
A controversial subject
Cal Fire has not yet confirmed the fire’s origin, but witnesses, community members, and growers have commonly expressed one suspected cause: arson, probably by a community member who didn’t want so many H-2A workers in the area.
The H-2A program holds a questionable rapport with residents in and around the Santa Maria Valley. When the former Laz-E-Daze retirement and residential center on North Broadway was bought out to house H-2A workers, the purchase displaced many low-income residents who previously lived there, including people recovering from substance abuse, mental health patients, and elderly people.
Many community members protest H-2A because it overcrowds residences that could be used by local families, but agricultural companies claim they have no other choice. They say the industry is suffering from a labor shortage, and the only legal way to bring in foreign farmworkers is through H-2A, which requires employers to provide free housing for their workers.
The growers’ side
Growers who want to use the H-2A program must first demonstrate that there’s an insufficient number of domestic workers for the job, according to Jason Resnick, vice president and general counsel for the Western Growers Association.
These growers must offer the open positions to their past and current employees, advertise the positions throughout California and neighboring states, and accept any domestic workers who are willing and able to take the jobs. If after an extensive search, the project still needs more workers, growers may then apply to hire workers through H-2A.
The application goes through four government agencies: the Employment Development Department, the Department of Labor (DOL), the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the relevant consulate. By the time growers start the application process, they must prove they can provide free, adequate housing (think: the Mads Place development) and transportation for their H-2A workers, said Ruben Lugo, agricultural enforcement coordinator for the western region of the DOL. The DOL enforces housing and transportation standards for H-2A employers.
Growers must offer either adequate kitchen equipment or catered meals to their H-2A workers, Lugo said, as well as a pre-set “adverse effect wage rate,” which in California comes to $11.89 per hour. Growers who secure these provisions for their H-2A workers must offer the same pay and services to any domestic workers they’ve also hired for the project.
“It’s the only temporary worker program we have,” Resnick told the Sun. “We are experiencing labor shortages, so employers are relying more and more on H-2A. We’re seeing more employers use it or contemplating using it in the near future.”
Unfortunately, the program tends to lead to community tension.
“That’s going to require that those employers provide free housing, and that’s how we get into the situation where ag and suburban areas clash, with the needs of the farmers and the needs of homeowners,” he said. “We’re concerned we’re going to see more of these conflicts.”
The community’s side
The morning after the Mads Place fire, a neighbor named Rick—who requested his last name not be used—told the Sun he had a young daughter, and he was concerned about the inevitable influx of men H-2A would bring into his small neighborhood.
“I don’t like it, just like everybody else,” Rick said. “I don’t mind the people, don’t get me wrong—but go do this somewhere else.”
Santa Maria resident Pedro Reyes lives two blocks from the H-2A housing facility on North Broadway, and he expressed a similar concern for his own neighborhood. Reyes, a longtime advocate for farmworker rights, also said H-2A prevents agricultural companies from feeling enough pressure from the labor shortage to improve working conditions for potential domestic employees.
“Part of the reason why those jobs are not attractive to legal workers is the exploitation that goes into those fields,” Reyes said, “specifically the salaries and the working conditions.”
For example, under California law, farmworkers aren’t due overtime until they’ve completed a 10-hour shift. If they were given an eight-hour regular shift like employees in most other industries are, Reyes said, it’d be easier to find U.S. citizen workers.
“If you are a legal resident, with a legitimate Social Security and a green card, the last thing you’re going to do is stick yourself in that situation,” he said. “If we provide local workers here an eight-hour shift with a decent-paying salary and health care, we would have a lot of people lining up for those jobs.”
Reyes said under current conditions, farmworkers are often denied decent salaries, health care benefits, comp time, sick leave, and the right to unionize.
“No one in their right mind is going to go and stick themselves in those fields, because there’s complete exploitation,” he said. “And that’s one of the reasons why I’m against the idea of guest workers.”
Staff Writer Brenna Swanston can be reached at email@example.com.
New York Times
Agriculture Start-Ups Get Boost From Big Firms and Investors
By Andrew Pollack
Compared with medicine, where small companies often lead in turning cutting-edge science into new drugs, agriculture has never had much start-up activity. Agricultural biotechnology, for instance, has been dominated by six giant seed and chemical companies, including Monsanto and DuPont.
But new technologies are opening up new opportunities, and investment in early-stage agricultural companies is springing to life.
One sign of that is the announcement being made Thursday of a new “accelerator” to assist fledgling agriculture companies. Its backers include two big agrochemical and seed companies, Bayer and Syngenta, and some venture capital firms that typically focus on pharmaceuticals, not farms.
“The time is really right for early-stage ag investing to come to life,” said John Dombrosky, chief executive of the new organization, called the AgTech Accelerator. “It’s happening before our very eyes.”
Some 499 agricultural technology companies attracted $4.6 billion in investments last year, nearly double the $2.36 billion in 2014 and way up from about $500 million in 2012, according to AgFunder, an organization that helps connect investors with agricultural companies.
Companies based in the United States raised just over half that total, or $2.4 billion.
About $1.65 billion of the 2015 global total was for food e-commerce companies, which some might not consider agriculture. But there was still a big increase in other sectors as well. Monsanto, for instance, now has its own venture capital operation.
Agricultural biotechnology once meant mainly genetically modified crops. Because of regulations and consumer opposition, these often required many years and tens of millions of dollars to bring to market. So genetic engineering was dominated by big companies working on major crops like corn and soybeans.
But now there are new, less expensive techniques for providing crops with new traits, such as the Crispr gene editing approach, which might not even be regulated. This could open the market for smaller companies working on less widely grown crops.
There is also a lot of development of so-called biological products such as living microbes that can kill pests, or ways to improve the health of the “plant microbiome,” the community of microbes that live in, on or around a plant.
A plant microbiome company in North Carolina called AgBiome raised $34.5 million last year from investors including Monsanto, Syngenta, some venture capital firms and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
There is also a huge effort now to apply electronic technology to the farm, including sensors, robots and drones, and big-data approaches to advise farmers what crops to plant on each small parcel of their land and how much water and fertilizer to apply to each spot.
“Now you have biologicals and digital, which are not as much impacted by those long time lines and high costs,” said Derek Norman, head of corporate venture capital for Syngenta.
The AgTech Accelerator will be based in Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, where Bayer and Syngenta have their main United States crop research operations. New start-ups will be able to work in the accelerator’s building and take advantage of its management.
The accelerator is starting with $11.5 million, but that will be increased later this year, Mr. Dombrosky said. Besides Bayer and Syngenta, investors include Arch Venture Partners, Flagship Ventures, Harris & Harris Group, Hatteras BioCapital, Mountain Group Capital and Pappas Capital.
An investor and driving force behind the accelerator was Alexandria Real Estate Equities, which develops life science research facilities. Alexandria is also involved with Accelerator Corporation, which helps nurture new medical biotechnology companies in Seattle and New York.
The agricultural accelerator will get ideas for new companies and expert advice from various universities, including Duke, North Carolina State, Pennsylvania State, Purdue, the University of North Carolina, Washington State and the University of California, Davis.