The Campaign for Organic and Regenerative Agriculture (CORA) envisions that in the near future, the Pajaro Valley will be an organic farming sanctuary that functions much like the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
In this scenario, farmers from around the world will come to the fruitful valley where Santa Cruz and Monterey counties meet, and learn about how to effectively farm organically from scientists and farmers who are largely responsible for establishing the organic standard. CORA member Woody Rehanek imagines local farmers such as Dick Peixoto, the owner of Lakeside Organic Gardens—the largest family-owned-and-operated organic vegetable grower in the U.S.—serving as a shaman of sorts for those willing to make the journey.
“This valley is a special place,” says Rehanek, “and it can be a leader.”
But today’s reality, he says, is far from that lofty dream. While parts of the Pajaro Valley have started to buy into this organic vision—20-25% of agriculture in Santa Cruz County is organically grown—the majority of operations in the fertile region of the Central Coast still use several pesticides that they consider essential to growing the area’s key crops, but that also have been linked to health problems in humans. This includes a number of farms within a stone’s throw of Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD) campuses and neighborhoods.
On Sept. 9, around 25 members of CORA held a press conference at a 30-foot-wide dirt road that separates dozens of homes and MacQuiddy Elementary School from Nugent Ranch—where, according to state records, pesticides are routinely used to help produce a variety of berries. They called on Driscoll’s CEO Miles Reiter to lead the local organic farming revolution by converting the billion-dollar berry producer’s conventional grows around local schools and residential areas to organic operations. That same day, CORA sent a letter to Reiter stating that while the group wants Pajaro Valley’s agriculture industry to continue its reign as one of the world’s most prolific producers, that should not trump the public’s health, nor the protection of the region’s fertile soil.
“Because we understand that the leadership of your companies decides which fields go organic, we are appealing to you directly as the CEO who has the power to make a real difference,” the letter states.
Taking turns holding a large banner reading “Stop Poisoning Our Kids: Go Organic,” three local farmworker families spoke during the press conference, all highlighting instances of cancer, physical birth defects and learning disabilities that they believe are a result of being exposed to pesticides while their children were in the womb.
While the group’s demands were straightforward, CORA members stressed that local farmers should not see them as the enemy. On the contrary, Rehanek says, the group wants to work with them to preserve the region’s agricultural footprint, and the rich soil that is found in few other locations across the globe.
“We just need to convince them that there’s a better way to do things so that they don’t have to worry about public health,” he says.
Call and Response
In a response to CORA’s letter shared with GT, Reiter wrote that while Driscoll’s, and his family’s company, Reiter Affiliated Companies, have made “a lot of progress in developing the capacity to farm berries organically in suitable areas,” making the shift to organic farming is not a simple process.
Reiter told CORA that one of the biggest hurdles to going organic is the cost incurred by the farmer tending to the crops and the owners of the land who lease their fields to local growers. Nugent Ranch, Reiter wrote, is one of several farms tended by Driscoll’s growers that faces this pinch—Reiter Affiliated is a tenant there.
“A decision to convert a farm to organic typically requires three years and a very substantial investment by the tenant farmer,” he wrote. “Landowners have generally been reluctant to participate in the costs of conversion. In addition, the lease terms typically do not extend for a sufficient amount of time to allow full utilization of the property following its certification as organic.”
According to the Nutrition Business Journal, organic farming grew from an estimated $21.6 billion industry in 2010 to $51.6 billion in 2020. Locally, according to the County Agricultural Commissioner’s 2021 crop report, there were 204 registered organic operations over 7,118 acres of land, valued at $110,310,000. But while those figures underscore organic farming’s evolution from a niche industry in its fledgling stage to a viable option for hundreds of farmers across the country, electing to farm organically still comes with increased risks for crops—and a growers’ ability to make ends meet.
Reiter wrote that he “would expect to see continued conversion of farms in the Pajaro Valley and other suitable areas to organic farming.” But he stopped short of guaranteeing that more of the company’s growers would make the switch, saying that “the choice of whether to farm a field organically or not is made by the grower.”
In contrast, members of CORA who have worked with Driscoll’s tell GT that the agricultural powerhouse pushes its contracted growers to farm conventionally. But they agree with Reiter’s assertion that more farms will go organic over time, as both the federal and state governments have shown an increasing interest in helping farmers make the change to organic agriculture.
Earlier this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 2499, which created an organic transition program that includes $5 million in seed funding to aid farmers as they move away from conventional grows. In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in August that it would invest up to $300 million into a national organic transition initiative.
Reiter Affiliated did not return a press inquiry as of press time.
Two Sides of the Debate
The Watsonville City Council on Oct. 11 hosted CORA and Santa Cruz County Agricultural Commissioner Juan Hidalgo for a briefing on pesticide use in the Pajaro Valley, and the state’s pilot pesticide notification system that launched this summer.
Kathleen Kilpatrick, a member of CORA and a retired school nurse, closed her presentation by showing a photo of an agricultural field with two signs featuring skulls and crossbones warning people to keep out.
“This is what you would see from some of the backyards in our neighborhood,” Kilpatrick said, highlighting how the older adult communities on the eastside of Watsonville are mere feet away from various agricultural fields where pesticide use is commonplace.
In her presentation, Kilpatrick provided several visual breakdowns of where pesticides are being sprayed around the Pajaro Valley, while also explaining which fumigants and other chemicals are being used, and the quantities in which they are being deployed. Many of the areas surrounding the communities and schools on the northeast side of the city were demarcated by deep red blocks, indicating a significant amount of pesticides have been applied there.
One of those areas was the field by MacQuiddy Elementary, where CORA held its press conference. According to CORA representatives, 33 of Nugent Ranch’s 66 acres are farmed organically, but the fields closest to MacQuiddy are all conventional grows. In fact, some 41,000 pounds of pesticides were applied in the square mile nearest to MacQuiddy, according to the most recently available state data. This includes 26,000 pounds of chloropicrin, once used as a chemical warfare agent, and 5,000 pounds of Telone, also known as 1,3-dichloropropene. In addition, last year Glyphosate—commonly known as Roundup—was sprayed at Nugent Ranch. Agribusiness giant Bayer announced last year that it would stop selling the harsh weed killer for residential use in 2023, a decision that came after the company lost several significant lawsuits from plaintiffs who alleged glyphosate gave them cancer.
Growers are quick to point out that the use of pesticides is highly regulated by not only the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR), but also by the County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office. Hidalgo said during his presentation that California often implements more stringent pesticide regulations than the EPA, and regularly reevaluates which pesticides can be used for agricultural purposes. For instance, he said the state will soon enact tougher regulations on the use of Telone, after it found the fumigant was used beyond CDPR regulations in the Central Valley.
But CORA says the regulations do little to stop pesticides from drifting out of agricultural fields and into neighborhoods. Moreover, they say they find it confounding that pesticides such as Telone and Glyphosate that are banned in dozens of countries around the world continue to be the most commonly used pesticides in the U.S. Local jurisdictions are unable to ban pesticides—a power that the state removed from their hands decades ago—and getting the EPA to take action against pesticides has been historically difficult because of a lack of research that directly links exposure to adverse health effects.
To the state’s credit, CDPR’s pilot notification system—which is active in Watsonville’s older adult neighborhoods, as well as three other small communities across the state—is slated to expand to a statewide program by 2024. But, as trial runs often do, there have been several hiccups that residents say needs to be addressed before the expansion. CORA’s Kilpatrick says that the top issue is that notifications—which come via text and email to those in the pilot zone—do not include the location where the pesticides are being applied, only warning residents that they are within one mile of the application.
The City Council did not take any action at the meeting, but Mayor Ari Parker said that the topic could be revisited at a future meeting as an action item. It’s unclear exactly what could come before the council when the subject is back on its agenda.
On Oct. 12, the Center for Farmworker Families joined the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council, Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers, local pesticide reform coalition Safe Ag Safe Schools and statewide coalition Californians for Pesticide Reform in filing a legal request to the Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner to stop pesticide sprays near PVUSD schools.
The groups, represented by Earthjustice, said in a statement that they are asking for a review of restricted-materials permits approving the use of numerous pesticides within one mile of Ohlone and Hall District elementary schools, as well as Pajaro Middle School in North Monterey County.
“The groups ask that the Commissioner stop all spraying authorized by these improperly issued permits until the required review of health and environmental impacts occurs,” their press release stated.
The Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner’s office had not yet responded to the request as of late last week, according to Mark Weller of Californians for Pesticide Reform.
Weller says the group was spurred to action by a 2019 UCLA report that found agricultural commissioners throughout the state are in violation of state law by failing to analyze cumulative health impacts and safer alternatives when approving pesticide permits. The legal request cites sections of permit applications that should detail environmental review, but instead “contain meaningless filler text or nothing at all and also provide no evidence of independent review by the Commissioner,” the press release stated.
Weller tells GT that while the group does not have immediate plans to file a similar request with Hidalgo in Santa Cruz County, the request in the neighboring jurisdiction is “the first step in what needs to be a much larger effort to reform a broken permitting system.”