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Sunday, April 22, 2001

Fighting pests all in a day’s work

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

Bugs, diseases keep farmers on their toes

Pests and diseases have always been major concerns of every farmer.

Whether it is the latest invasion, such as the glassy-winged sharpshooter threatening the newly planted vineyards in Solano County, or an insect as common as the aphid, farmers need to look for a way to protect their crops from too much damage. After all, the consumer demands perfect-looking fruit.

Spraying or fumigating are methods to keep insects and diseases under control. This is done mostly in winter, when trees are dormant, or in early spring.

Frank Buss has farmed his family’s prune orchard for decades in Vacaville. “The spraying was done in the spring, sometime about the first of May, when the prunes on the trees are about the size of my fingernail. The sooner you do it, you get the aphids, too. A couple of times I have had to spray twice in the spring because some of the bugs didn’t get killed. You spray the prunes for tree bore, pearl leaf, and canker worm. You must spray or they’ll eat the leaves off the trees. The one thing that is harder to kill than before is a little bug that forms a hard shell on the branches. If you do a good job, you can usually get most of them. If you don’t do something about it, you could certainly lose a crop of prunes.”

Using sprays in the orchards to control insects goes back a long way. While the task is motorized today, Barbara Martell Comfort remembers a different procedure in the 1930s. “Rigs were horse-drawn vehicles. In the late afternoon they would bring the wagons in to soak the wooden wheels with wet gunnysacks. This was to keep the wooden components of the wheels tight. The tank that was carried on the wagon was about 150 gallons and also made of wood. It was built on the principle of a barrel, curved and bound with metal straps. That would be driven under a standpipe to put the spray mix in, dry or liquid, depending on the pest you were combating. There was a rubber hose on either side of the rig with a nozzle. You’d have three men; one driving the horses, one on either side to do the spraying. The teams of horses came to understand exactly the intervals that were required to move the rig forward so that the next group of trees could be sprayed. All you needed to do was to tell them to go forward and they would go the exact distance and stop.”

Safety procedures were relatively minimal. Like most farmers, Alice Noguchi Kanagaki recalled a general lack of concern regarding spraying material: “Two or three men went along with this monstrous contraption that chugged along. The motor really made a ‘chug-chug-chug’ sound as it moved slowly between the rows of trees. The spray was aquagreenish in color. The men would come back from spraying that and their clothes were all aqua-colored.”

Rules are much stricter today, explained Roy Mason: “You have to give the Ag Commission 48 hours notice before you spray, so they know when you’re spraying and what you’re spraying. Some of the sprays we use today are deadly for the bees. That has to be coordinated with the beekeeper, so they can move them. You give the Ag Commissioner a notice of intent and then you give a notice of completion. You fill out papers where your location is and how many pounds you put on per acre and how many gallons you put on per acre. You have to keep your chemicals under lock and key. When you’re spraying, you can leave them in the back of your pickup, but you cannot leave the boxes open along the rows. You have to post your orchards as to what chemicals you use. To my knowledge, we’ve never had any illnesses or any deaths from any of our spraying, but it makes you become more cautious.”

Nonetheless, farmers often feel that today’s rules and regulations are restricting their ability to farm successfully. The discussion between environmentalists whose main goal is to protect the environment and farmers who want to protect their crops has been going on for decades.

Vacaville farmer Gene Brazelton, a born storyteller, gives this tongue-in-cheek account of an environmentalist visiting his ranch. ” He said, ‘Now what kind of chemical are you spraying today?’ “

“I said, ’ My oldest son won’t let me use chemicals.”’

“Well, ‘he said, that’s good.’”

“I said, ‘No, that’s no good. He gets me and the whole crew out there on ladders and we got to catch each individual bug and squeeze them between our thumbnails. It just breaks my heart to kill bugs that way. When I used to use a chemical, it didn’t bother me, but when I have to catch every bug and kill it, it makes me sad.’”

“Oh, he says, ‘but you are not polluting the atmosphere. Keep it up. Keep it up.’”

“I couldn’t believe that anyone would believe it, but he believed me.”