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Concerns About Pesticide Use The Focus Of Visit By State Agency Director To South Coast

Julie Henderson, Acting Director of the State Department Of Pesticide Regulation (in green jacket), on a tour of the Rodale Institute California Organic Center in Camarillo.

The head of the State Department Of Pesticide Regulation toured a research farm in Ventura County.

It was the mid-2000s and Teresa Gomez made a living as a farmworker in the fields of Ventura County. "I worked on the strawberries, blueberries, everything in the field," said Gomez. "I never knew how pesticides were dangerous. Nobody told me."

Her concern about the use of pesticides turned her into an activist with the group Californians for Pesticide Reform.

Today, she’s part of a group of people touring the Rodale Institute California Organic Center in Camarillo. The institute is doing research on pesticide-free growing. It was an opportunity for those concerned about the pesticide issue in the state to come together, and talk about the subject.

Among those on hand was Julie Henderson, the Acting Director of the State Department Of Pesticide Regulation. She says they've developed a work group of everyone from growers to community members to look at ways to move forward with safer, and sustainable pest management in a way that also supports the agricultural industry.

"We're not trying to solve it all tomorrow, but really trying to be thoughtful, and intentional about how we move forward," said Henderson. She added they aren't just looking at the agricultural industry, but also pest management in urban environments.

Pesticide use can be a complicated issue. Longtime Ventura County farmer Phil McGrath says they can be a quick fix. "Chemical are magic," said McGrath. "You spray em, and they kill the bugs."

But, he says the way some farms have become large, single crop businesses has set up fertile grounds for insect pests. He believes that smaller, multi-crop farms make it harder for many pests to take hold.

McGrath turned to organic farming in the 1990s. The research institute is on his 300 acre farm right off of Highway 101 in Camarillo. He's currently looking at hemp, which grows well in Ventura County and only uses a small fraction of the water used by crops like strawberries.

An experimental hemp field in Camarillo.

Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner Ed Williams says one of the big efforts right now is to get farmers to look at what pesticides they use, and how they use them.

"We're using the least severe materials first, and if that doesn't work, we're then stepping it up," said Williams.

Williams says 99% of the county’s farms are on board with responsible pesticide use. He says while the number of citations was up during the last two years, it was mainly for things like paperwork issues.

While pesticide use has sometimes been a contentious issue between environmental and farm groups, Williams says there’s been more of a push for cooperation.

Adam Vega is a Community Health & Policy Advocate at Clinicas Del Camino Real. He’s been involved with efforts to get some pesticides banned.

"We're saying yes, there are alternatives available. And, we need to think about what those are, and if we don't have those readily available, we need to research them," said Vega. "At the same time, we don't need to be using a sledgehammer to nail that nail. We should be using a hammer."

The pesticide issue isn’t just one which applies to the agricultural industry.
Julie Henderson says it’s one which also applies to us. "Just when going out to a store, and buying something for our home, and making sure, helping people understand that there are safer tools available and they don't have to resort to harsh chemicals to deal with pests," said Henderson.

The state agency received more than $30 millon more in its budget this year for research and education.

Henderson says making pest management safer and effective doesn't have to be at odds with each other. But, she says it includes education about the smarter use of pesticides we have now, and developing more environmentally friendly approaches for the future.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.