As companies remove products, industry sees more research on alternatives
By TIM HEARDEN
WATSONVILLE, Calif. -- Strawberry producers in the Golden State won't feel much of an impact from a fumigant maker's decision to cancel its product registration with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, an industry representative says.
Methyl iodide was pulled from the markets in California last March, and it was only used "in a small remote corner of one field," said Carolyn O'Donnell, spokeswoman for the California Strawberry Commission.
"Not everyone was embracing it right away," O'Donnell said. "Each grower has to look at their field location and regulations and consider what they're able to use."
Still, Arysta's decision Nov. 21 to remove all of its products from the U.S. market and end all sales permanently is another milepost in the road to an uncertain future for growers that have relied on methyl bromide, which is being phased out by the federal government.
Methyl iodide was seen as an alternative for controlling weeds and soil pathogens, to which the strawberry industry is especially vulnerable. The fumigant was cleared for use but pulled from the market amid criticism of the product from farmworkers and environmentalists.
Increasingly, industry insiders and University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisors believe strawberry operations in the Golden State will be fumigant-free within a few years, although they're not yet sure how to get there.
The phaseout of methyl bromide because of ozone depletion has led to intense research into alternatives. The state Department of Pesticide Regulation is working with the strawberry commission on a three-year, $500,000 project to explore production in materials other than soil.
The project will build on previous research that has looked at the potential for growing strawberries in substrate.
Steve Fennemore, a UC researcher based in Salinas, has been testing a tractor outfitted with a boiler to steam soil as an alternative to methyl bromide. Steam technology was being explored more than a century ago but was set aside when methyl bromide became a standard tool.
Fennemore said earlier this year that "we're probably facing a future in California without fumigants." O'Donnell said the industry must find other effective ways of dealing with soil-borne diseases.
"Currently the most effective thing we have is fumigation, but in the long run we've seen regulations, one by one, weed out those tools," she said. "We're in the process of finding other tools that growers can put in their tool box to deal with soil-borne disease."
Despite the uncertainties, California's roughly 500 strawberry farms are on a pace to set another production record in 2012 after missing what would have been a sixth-straight record-breaking season last year.
O'Donnell attributes much of the increase in production to new varieties, some of which were bred to withstand soil disease. The Central Coast region also provides some of the best growing conditions in the world for strawberries, she said.
California produces 85 percent of the nation's strawberries.
They're picked year-round somewhere in the state, although the peak season is typically late spring and early summer, when roadside stands dot the countryside as major production centers in Oxnard, Santa Maria and Watsonville are at full steam.
California Strawberry Commission: www.calstrawberry.com