California growers rush to fend off boycotts of fruit, vegetable crops

California growers are trying to reassure prospective customers that the Golden State's harvest remains largely untouched by the Medfly infestation and efforts to stem its spread.

The state's highly publicized war against the Mediterranean fruit fly now includes a spraying area of 654 square miles within a quarantine zone of 2,427 square miles across five counties.

With the exception of a few cherry tomato and pepper crops in Santa Clara County, where the state first began its aerial spraying of malathion a little over a month ago, not one piece of market-bound produce from the state's estimated $5.2 billion worth of fruits, vegetables, and nuts has been sprayed with malathion, or subjected to chemical fumigation. Up to now, the spraying efforts largely have been targeted at urban areas.

"None of our fruit has been sprayed [with malathion]," says Galen Geller, manager of the California Tree Fruit Agreement, which manages federal marketing orders for sales of fresh plums, pears, nectarines, and peaches. "None has been fumigated, and none has bugs. Not one piece of fruit was grown in a quarantine area.

Behind these reassurances lies growers' concern over the impact any boycotts may have on an already soft market for produce.

Prices are substantially lower than what growers say they need to make a profit, or even to meet their harvest costs. Plums that normally would sell for are selling below normal market prices of $5 to $9 a lug for a current $3 to $5 a lug.

At home, growers perceive an as-yet unquantified reluctance among consumers to purchase California-grown produce.

"Consumers obviously are afraid to buy fruit," says Geller. "Nobody can estimate the impact of a mental syndrome that is undoubtedly a marketing factor. It's just immeasurable."

Abroad, the Japanese government has asked the United States to halt all shipments of California produce to Japan to prevent the spread of the Mediterranean fruit fly. Japan is America's largest overseas market for citrus fruits, accounting for as much as $100 million of the $137 million in citrus fruits exported from the US in 1980.

Growers fear that actions such as this could have a snowball effect.

These concerns are building just as farmers finally have begun to express more optimism about the Medfly battle, which they complain had been like "playing patsy," in the words of one industry spokesman, up until the most recent finds.

Although the fly was found Aug. 14 on the edge of the San Joaquin Valley, the world's most fertile farmland, aerial spraying was begun within hours of the discovery -- unlike past finds, which were followed by delays of a day or two as state officials assessed each new situation. Nor did farmers leave it up to the state: On Aug. 16, eight growers paid for four planes to spray 900 acres of the quarantine area with diphos, an insecticide considered to be more potent than malathion.

"I'm feeling better about the Medfly," says Geller. "We're out of the urban area now. We're fighting it in an area where people can act and do act.

"There won't be any of this business of the governor saying he's protecting generations unborn," he continues, in hostile reference to Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.'s antitoxic chemical stand. "I really feel encouraged. They may still make another find, but they will jump on it quickly."

Not everyone, however, is as optimistic. Although no one has suggested that the fly is unbeatable, some scientists have predicted that the state's current year-long, $58 million effort may have to be extended to two years before the fly is eradicated. According to a spokesman for the state's Medfly eradication project, aerial spraying is expected to continue through October -- with a 55 -day period of no new finds required before the fly can be declared eradicated.

In the near-term, a more pressing question is one of the fumigation and cold storage that is required before any piece of produce can be moved out of a quarantine area. Although the existing quarantine areas do not encompass California's rich farmlands, the threat of expanded or outside-imposed quarantines is a great worry to growers because there are not enough fumigation chambers in the state to handle more than minimal work.

According to Don Fiskaali, an economic entomologist with the State Department of Agriculture who has been assigned to the Medfly battle, there were only 119 fumigation chambers across the state prior to the Medfly outbreak. Although farmers are rushing to build new chambers, he estimates there will only be enough equipment to handle 1 percent of the state's crops.

None of this bodes well for Governor Brown, who is running for US Senate next year. Although Brown has begun to use the issue as a focus to discuss one of his longstanding concerns -- the use of toxic chemicals in the environment -- his handling of the Medfly issue is expected to dog him for months to come, particularly if the situation continues to worsen. The battle serves as an ideal platform for his political opponents, Democrats and Republicans alike, who charge that his initial hesitation to order aerial spraying is proof that Brown is unable to make quick, well-reasoned judgments.

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