Deadline Looms for Strawberry Farmers

Oct 11, 2012

Conventional strawberry farmers face a deadline.  They have just a few years to find a way to grow their berries without using the fumigant methyl bromide. 


Rod Koda stands on the top of a hill overlooking 27 acres of strawberries at his Watsonville Farm, along the Pacific Ocean.  Koda has been growing conventional strawberries here since 1985.  He has always relied on the fumigant methyl bromide to control pests, weeds, and soil pathogens. He says the fumigant has been essential to keeping his strawberries on the market.  “We’ve got 19,000 little plants per acre, which each plant has a potential.  And every mistake, or if we don’t fumigate, we lose a potential. We lose a part of that potential,” said Koda.   But because methyl bromide depletes the O-Zone layer its being phased out.  Under the Montreal Protocol and the Clean Air Act, agricultural use of the fumigant has been steadily declining since 1998. Although originally set to be completely phased by 2005, some exceptions have been made.  Strawberry farmers have been continuing to use it under an exemption that runs out in 2015.    

The maker of the replacement fumigant, methyl iodide, recently pulled out of the U-S market.  And other allowable fumigants – like chloropicrin and telone – are not nearly as effective or affordable.  That’s left conventional strawberry farmers like Koda with just a few years to find a new alternative. Although he grows some organic strawberries, he says there’s no way he could completely convert his crops. Strawberries are particularly susceptible to soilborne diseases, and require frequent crop rotation. Koda says he just doesn’t have enough acreage to carry out this large a rotation and remain profitable in the strawberry industry.

Down the road on another piece of land, he points in the direction of some experimental plots. Colored flags mark the different fumigant free growing methods being tried out.  They’re testing soil steaming, soil fermentation and other techniques.  “They call this one raised bed trough trial.  What they do is they put the black fabric down, and fill the fabric with coconut husks and core, and they grow in that medium,” said Koda.  This test field is a partnership between the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and the California Strawberry Commission.  “We’re finding some things work great, some things work not so great, and some of them work great in some places, and not so great in other places. So, as I said, we’re not going to find a one size fits all solution here,” said Carolyn O’Donnell, Communications Director for the California Strawberry Commission.  But finding a solution is essential.  Strawberries are a $2.3-billion industry in California.  The state grows most of nation’s strawberries. “Actually they’re an interesting crop. There’s 88% of the strawberries are grown here in the state of California, and it’s only on 38,000 acres of land,” said O’Donnell.

Beyond the test fields, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation has formed a working group to find the most cost-effective, fumigant-free strawberry growing techniques.  “This administration has a real commitment to working with the strawberry industry, and working with its neighbors, and the workers, and the environment to really figure out how to do a vibrant strawberry, strawberry industry, as well as, kind of keep this whole community going,” said DPR Director Brian Leahy.  Experimenting with soilless mediums can control soilborne pests and pathogens, decreasing the need for heavy-duty fumigants like methyl bromide.

Strawberry farmer Rod Koda is part of that working group.  Back in the test field, he says so far none of these alternatives are economical.  He says they cost two to three times more than fumigants.  “It’s not economically feasible, all these.  Steam sterilization uses probably $10,000 in fuel per acre. I’m sorry. Yeah, we don’t use fumigants, but we just spent $10,000 dollars in diesel fuel, or bio fuel to achieve it. You know?  At what point?” said Koda.  With a 2015 deadline looming, he hopes they can find a solution. The working group plans to release its first report next month.