California grows nearly 90% of the nation’s strawberries. About 30% of the state’s strawberry production takes place in coastal Ventura County, with much of the crop being grown in the community of Oxnard. Strawberry producers rely on chemicals called fumigants to help grow the crop. Now, the use of fumigants has become a civil rights and environmental justice issue.
The situation is complex. Ventura County, directly north of Los Angeles County, is an agricultural powerhouse. Much of the agricultural production that occurs on the Oxnard Plain is on the ag-urban (peri-urban) interface. And that’s a significant issue: Ventura County has more schools and more students – about 13,000 – attending classes within a 1/4 mile of the production areas most heavily treated with pesticides than any other place in the state. The majority of those students are Latino. In 1999, a group filed a Civil Rights Act complaint with the EPA, alleging civil rights violations and lax enforcement of the regulations regarding pesticide use.
In April 2015, Liza Gross (@lizabio) wrote a galvanizing piece about this issue for The Nation. The story was produced by the Food & Environment Reporting Network (@FERNnews), an independent nonprofit news organization. This reporting – and additional work produced by others in the ensuing months – has brought the issue to the fore…and the stakes have grown even larger.
The latest news? In response to concern from parents, community members, school administrators and local leaders, California regulators are in the process of “developing the first statewide restrictions on pesticide use near schools.”
By the end of 2015, the Department of Pesticide Regulation plans to propose new rules that could require growers to implement buffer zones, notify parents and school administrators of nearby pesticide use or limit their use of certain application methods.
For some, the action is overdue.
“This should have been addressed years ago,” said Lucy Cartagena Martinez, who grew up in a family of migrant farmworkers and now handles campus security for more than 2,000 students at Rio Mesa High School.
But California, like most states, “has no comprehensive restrictions on pesticide use near schools…” Rather, the state Department of Pesticide Regulation has left the authority for local practice to county agricultural commissioners. This has led to a “patchwork of informal agreements that vary dramatically from county to county.”
Producers and pesticide applicators argue that increased regulations will place “expensive burdens” on operations, in a place where agriculture is already under threat by urban development.
“Today’s regulations are working,” strawberry grower Bobby Jones said at a hearing earlier this month in the library of Rio Mesa High School, where his family has farmed the bulk of the surrounding land for three generations. There is not enough evidence, he said, “to support more regulations or restrictions based on probability or potential harm.”
Agriculture is one of the top industries in Ventura County and is also highly prized for its iconic value. Local leaders are trying to achieve a balance that will protect both human health and the economic interests of producers.
Ventura County Supervisor John Zaragoza [representing parts of Oxnard] said, “My biggest concern is about the excessive use of dangerous fumigants and the safety of our children, teachers and families.” But he is not convinced that additional restrictions are needed.
“What is safe for the community without unfairly regulating the industry?” he said. “We need to create a balance.”