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Little Moth Creating Stress For Local Farmers

Little Moth Creating Stress For Local Farmers
How will local farmers be affected by the light brown apple moth quarantine? We speak to a nursery owner and the county's agriculture commissioner about the risks the moth poses to local agriculture, and the challenges the quarantine will create for farmers who ship products out of the state.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. At a time when the agriculture industry in San Diego really doesn't need any more problems, comes the light brown apple moth. The bug, originally from Australia, has been found in two areas of San Diego County and apparently likes to eat all of San Diego's major crops from cut flowers to citrus. Both a state and federal quarantine are pending because of the apple moth. We'll find out what consequences those quarantines may have for San Diego growers. I’d like to introduce my guests. Bob Atkins is San Diego County Agriculture Commissioner. And, Bob, welcome to These Days.

BOB ATKINS (Agriculture Commissioner, San Diego County): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Janet Kister is past president of the San Diego Farm Bureau and owner of Sunlet Nursery in Fallbrook. Janet, good morning.


JANET KISTER (Owner, Sunlet Nursery): Good morning. Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Bob, four light brown apple moths were recently discovered in a trap near Balboa Park. Why is that cause for concern?

ATKINS: Well, actually we’ve picked up another one in that trap and one more…


ATKINS: …a couple blocks away. So we’re at six moths at this point. The trigger for the quarantines is two moths and so we have exceeded that trigger for both the state interior quarantine and the federal quarantine.


CAVANAUGH: So that basically what you’re saying is that it’s a done deal that those quarantines are going to be imposed.

ATKINS: They are in the process of being written and enacted.

CAVANAUGH: Janet, what are some of your main concerns related to the discovery of these moths in San Diego and the impending quarantines?

KISTER: Yes, well, when this quarantine comes down it will mean that any ag products that are produced here in San Diego County may not be able to ship until certain conditions are met. And those conditions will be inspection of our facilities and trapping to make sure there’s no moths at our facilities. Now, we’re hopeful that all of those inspections will be done before the quarantine comes down but San Diego County has more farms than any other county in the United States and that’s a big challenge for the Ag Department to get through and inspect us all.

CAVANAUGH: So what does that mean in literal terms to your business if a quarantine comes down and the inspection hasn’t taken place in a timely manner?

KISTER: That’s a good question. We all have perishable product and we would not be able to ship until, as I said, those conditions are met, the inspections are done. We run the risk of losing our product because maybe in some cases the fruits and vegetables may rot in the fields or in cases like us, for our nursery, our plants may over bloom, the flowers may go bad or we may miss an ad date for a customer. We may not be able to fulfill their order.

CAVANAUGH: Bob Atkins, where – in my introduction, I read that this pest comes from Australia but do we have any idea how the light brown apple moth got here?

ATKINS: No. Rarely do we have the smoking gun…


ATKINS: …for specifically what introduced the moth or, in this case, it’s also known from New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Hawaii and we don’t know which of those sources brought them to California. We know that three years ago when it was found, there had been a survey just two years before with the USDA having placed some traps in that very area at a lesser density, not the five per square mile that we’re doing now. But they missed it at that time. In other words, the population either wasn’t there or it was at such a low level that it was undetectable. And in 2007, when it was detected, just about as fast as we were putting out traps, we had more areas included. The bulk of the infestation is centered in Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Mateo, Santa Clara, around the Bay Area. It’s much lighter on the northern and eastern parts of the bay. And then we have satellite infestations in San Luis Obispo. Santa Barbara, I believe has been eradicated. Ventura has been eradicated. Los Angeles and now San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Bob, it sounds as if one of the areas that we’re focusing on here in San Diego is around Balboa Park. How will that affect growers? I mean, is there much agriculture going on in that area for the state quarantine?

ATKINS: Actually, luckily, no.


ATKINS: We have one certified farmers market producer in the area and that is all the commercial agriculture that we have. This is about as good as it gets. It’s right east of the bulk of our most urbanized part of the county and also not a production area. When we had a single moth up in Bonsall, the timing and the location were just about as bad as it could be. It was just before Mother’s Day and Easter, which for our flowering plant industry and our cut flower industry was an absolute disaster. That’s when the bulk of their profits are made.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the second quarantine that is going to come down, according to you, which the USDA is proposing, it sounds like that’s a much larger quarantine. Who’s affected by that quarantine?

ATKINS: The rest of the county.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, okay.

ATKINS: Unfortunately, at this point, USDA is including the entirety of any county that has an infestation in it. And we don’t agree with that and I know Janet and other people in the industry have written letters and I’ve been on the phone with the National Plant Board and USDA, trying to change that regulation to a finite distance that would more correctly affect the producers that are closer to the infestation. 99% of our production is outside of a 15-mile radius and to regulate those thousands of acres—it’s somewhere between six- and nine-thousand acres—unnecessarily takes and dilutes our available resources away from where we should be concentrating at in eradicating and controlling the infestation there where we know it to exist.

CAVANAUGH: By the way, if there are any growers listening who have questions about these impending quarantines and you want to give us a call, the number is 1-888-895-5727. Bob, do you know when these quarantines are going to be imposed?

ATKINS: Well, I believe that – the best information I have is the state interior quarantine should be published by the end of the week. The federal quarantine is a little more elusive. I’ve heard dates as late as October first. But everyone’s dissatisfied with that. We want it earlier than that. And so it’s anywhere from two weeks to two months is what it’s looking like.

CAVANAUGH: Janet Kister, I know that when one light brown apple moth was discovered in the Bonsall area, as Bob was telling us about, you were among the growers that agreed to participate in a voluntary testing program. Why did you decide to join that program?

KISTER: Well, it was a business decision. We looked at the risk and, as Bob had mentioned, Mother’s Day is our biggest holiday for shipping our plants out. We could not run the risk that we would be shut down even for half a day. That would’ve had major implications for our business as well as for other nurseries. So many of us decided to go into a voluntary pre-inspection program that we paid for but at that time of year, we needed to make sure that we could continue to keep shipping.

CAVANAUGH: So, Bob, how exactly do these quarantines work? Do farmers have to set up a trap on their property and then check those traps? How does it go?

ATKINS: We will do that. The USDA, CDFA, California Department of Food & Agriculture, and the County are all participating. There will be contracts and we will do the work. We initially inspect each of the nurseries and the production area, particularly cut flowers, and in the commodity areas, it’s one trap per square mile. For the nurseries, it’s one trap for every five acres, a minimum of at least one trap on each of the nurseries. And we will maintain those traps and inspect those every two weeks.

CAVANAUGH: And what happens if you do discover a light brown apple moth in one of the traps?

ATKINS: There are treatments that are required in the immediate area where the moth is found.

CAVANAUGH: Now this is not the only – I mean, if these – if, indeed, these quarantines are imposed, they’re not going to be the only quarantines currently in effect in San Diego County, are they, Bob?

ATKINS: Unfortunately not. We’re just on the very tail end of the Mediterranean fruit fly quarantine in Escondido. It’s scheduled to elapse in the next day or two. Fallbook just went out on, I believe, the 7th of August. And we have an ongoing Asian citrus psyllid quarantine that covers most of the county and so, no, unfortunately it’s not – this is not the only quarantine we face.

CAVANAUGH: Janet, in an ironic kind of a way do the quarantines cause more concern than the actual pests?

KISTER: You know, it’s actually both. The quarantine can shut us down. It can shut our business down in a heartbeat and that’s a huge problem. But the pest itself is also a problem and it’s not just for us, for the farms, it’s for everyone in their gardens and their communities, too. For example, the light brown apple moth, if that came into someone’s garden, it affects oaks, it affects roses. It will eat all of those plants. It also gets into the community. The homeowner’s going to start using more pesticides, the community will start using more pesticides, and we will, too, to have to combat this. So the quarantine can shut us down but the pest is a big concern also.

CAVANAUGH: So what would you say to the rest of the community? What can – I’m going to ask both of you, Janet and Bob. First you, Janet, what can residents do to prevent these quarantines, these infestations?

KISTER: Well, I would like to make a plea to all of the residents of San Diego County, when you’re out visiting Hawaii, Mexico, even other states, and you see this really cool plant that you want to take a cutting and bring it home because you know that you can plant it here or you pay good money for that papaya or mango and you didn’t quite eat it on your trip and you want to take it home. I want to plead with them, please do not bring anything back from any of your trips. It will impact you. It will impact your garden and your community and it’ll impact your local farmers like this quarantine is.


ATKINS: Well, I would agree with that with the possible caveat that you could check with the local Department of Agriculture wherever you are or before you go on your trip, if you intend to bring anything back, check with us or USDA and definitely declare those things when you come back into the state so that they can be adequately inspected by the inspectors there at the airport. Same thing with coming in from out of state. If you have brought something, stop at the inspection station and declare that to them and be sure that you’re not bringing something in inadvertently. I mean, even things that aren’t still alive—firewood is a tremendous hazard. There are a number of pests that travel on firewood. Our goldspot oak borer (sic) is one of those things that threatens our native oaks here and that can be moved from place to place by people moving oak firewood.

CAVANAUGH: Very, very good advice from both of you. I just wanted to add, you know, I said in the introduction that this particular pest, the light brown apple moth, apparently loves to eat just about everything that San Diego grows. And I’m wondering, Janet, how concerned are other nursery owners and farmers that you’ve been hearing from in your area?

KISTER: Well, I would say everyone is very concerned. Of course, it’s going to vary from farmer to farmer. Right now, the avocado growers, they’re done with the harvest for this year. I think the citruses, they’re done harvesting, too. So they’re not concerned right now but they’ll be concerned later on when their fruit starts to come on. So everyone has different levels, depending on how close they are to the find and what point they are in their harvest.

CAVANAUGH: And, Bob, I know that you’re going to be holding an informational meeting in Fallbrook this afternoon at 2:00. What kind of information will the County be sharing with the public?

ATKINS: Well, it will be me and my counterparts with California Department of Food & Agriculture, and USDA, and we will be explaining exactly what the quarantines mean, both the state interior quarantine, which is that mile and a half radius around the find there east of Balboa Park. And the USDA regulation which will, at this point, encompass the entire county. And so we’ll be explaining mostly to growers what that means and how we intend to prioritize and work down the list of growers and commodity growers that will be affected by this and answer any questions that they may have.

CAVANAUGH: Bob Atkins, thank you so much for talking with us today.

ATKINS: My pleasure. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And Janet Kister, thank you.

KISTER: Thank you. Thank you for having this topic today.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to let everyone know once again, a town meeting will be held today for San Diego County growers about the potential quarantines. That meeting will take place at 2:00 p.m. at the Fallbrook Community Center. If you’d like to comment, please go online, Stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.