Trans-foody reflections on New Yorker's Driscoll piece

Submitted: Aug 20, 2017
By: 
Badlands Journal editorial board

 Dana Goodyear, a Yale food journalist, has written an excellent article on Driscoll, the dominant corporation in the westcoast berry deal, as far as the article goes. I guess, for anyone who remembers Driscoll as an up-and-coming player, partnering with its growers as Bud Antle was with his lettuce growers with strict quality control, one wonders at times about the reporter's questions, or perhaps lack of them. There is also a strong similarity in terms of cosmetics over taste to what the Washington apple growers did to the Red Deliciou apple, millions of tons of whose packing-shed culls have been flowing into Watsonville's Martinelli Cider Co. for decades.

A kind of high-tech, corporatist, weightless obtuseness underlies the professionally written, fact-checked New Yorker production. One wants to know, in all this wonderful relationship with Driscoll's actual berry producers, what kind of deal these producers have with this ultra-modern, nearly Silicon Valley-perfect business firm.  

But, a couple of old fuddy-dud 20th-century questions remain. For example, how does one seriously discuss the strawberry business, particularly the company with near monopoly control of it, without any mention of the role of methyl bromide, having only finally exhausted all of its agricultural exemptions last year? A corollary question might have been how much money has Driscoll paid politicians through the years to continue the exemption on this ozone depleting chemical scourge of the lowly nematode?

And then, those of us whose beards are white wonder about labor in the corporately immortal strawberry fields of Driscoll.

And of course, OMG! for the extraordinarily long-of-tooth California agricultural types, there's water.

With these irritants in mind, we gathered a few notices below the splendid New Yorker piece as a kind of trans-foody reality coda.

-- Viva Jabuka

 

 

 

 

 

8-21-17

New Yorker

Annals of Agriculture

How Driscoll’s Reinvented the Strawberry

The berry behemoth turned produce into a beauty contest, and won.

Dana Goodyear

 

 

 

 

 

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/08/21/how-driscolls-reinvented-the-strawberry?mbid=nl_170815_monday%20second%20send&cndid=48689978&spmailingid=11703679&spuserid=mtc5nzi4mdi2ndews0&spjobid=1221377391&spreportid=mtiymtm3nzm5mqs2

 

One foggy May morning, the Joy Makers, a team of scientists employed by Driscoll’s, the world’s largest berry company, gathered at its research-and-development campus, which is known as Cassin Ranch, in the small agricultural town of Watsonville, on California’s Central Coast. Before them was a table laden with plastic clamshells: red, white, and pink strawberries for the pipeline. Phil Stewart, an affably geeky, sandy-haired strawberry geneticist, offered me a yellowish-white specimen with rosy stains, like a skinned knee when the blood starts seeping through. The Joy Makers watched expectantly as I tasted it. The fruit, an unpatented variety referred to as 21AA176, was juicy and soft, mildly astringent but tropical, reminiscent of white tea. “It goes back to a variety called White Carolina, which is maybe the oldest strawberry variety still in existence,” Stewart said. “It dates back to the seventeen-hundreds.”

In some Asian markets, white fruit is coveted, and Driscoll’s has conducted commercial trials in Hong Kong. But although the company has been breeding whites for fifteen years, it has yet to introduce any to U.S. grocery stores; Americans, accustomed to an aggressive cold chain, typically fear underripe fruit. “I brought these to a wedding, and all the parents were telling their kids not to eat the white ones,” a Joy Maker remarked. Lately, however, Driscoll’s focus groups have shown that millennials, adventurous and open-minded in their eating habits, and easily seduced by novelty, may embrace pale berries. With these consumers, unburdened by preconceived notions of what a white berry should look or taste like, Driscoll’s has a priceless opportunity: the definitional power that comes with first contact. Before that can happen, though, the berries must conform to Driscoll’s aesthetic standards. Stewart held a 21AA176 up to his face and inspected it carefully. “Microcracking,” he said, pointing out some barely perceptible brown spots, caused by moisture on the plastic packaging, that were marring the surface. “This is not going to go forward.”

Driscoll’s, a fourth-generation family business, says that it controls roughly a third of the six-billion-dollar U.S. berry market, including sixty per cent of organic strawberries, forty-six per cent of blackberries, fourteen per cent of blueberries, and just about every raspberry you don’t pick yourself. Miles Reiter is the chairman; his family owns some seventy per cent of the company, which develops proprietary breeds, licenses them exclusively to approved Driscoll’s growers, and sells the fruit under one of the few widely recognizable brand names in the fresh section of the grocery store. Though the farming is technically outsourced, the Reiters also own a farming company, run by Miles’s brother Garland, which grows about a third of Driscoll’s fruit. “We’re commonly referred to as the Evil Empire,” Allison Reiter Kambic, one of Miles’s daughters, told me ruefully. “They’re the leaders,” Herb Baum, who for decades led the berry coöperative Naturipe, said. “I regret to say, as I worked for a competitor.” At ninety, Baum is retired, but when he tells people that he worked in strawberries and they say, “Oh, Driscoll’s?” he knows just how Salieri felt.

Produce is war, and it is won by having something beautiful-looking to sell at Costco when the competition has only cat-faced uglies. In the eighties, beset by takeover ambitions from Chiquita, Del Monte, and Dole, Driscoll’s embarked on a new vision: all four berries, all year round. Otherwise, Miles told me, “we could be outflanked.” Driscoll’s berries are grown in twenty-one countries and sold in forty-eight; since the nineties, the company has invested heavily in Mexico. Driscoll’s sells more than a billion clamshells every year; it was Driscoll’s idea to put berries into clamshells in the first place. At the corporate offices, in a business park a few miles from Cassin Ranch, interactive maps mounted on the walls monitor every truck carrying Driscoll’s fruit in North America, some two hundred and fifty at any given time. An alarm goes off if a truck’s temperature deviates from an accepted range, if a truck stops for too long (in Las Vegas, for instance), or if security is breached. A full load of strawberries is worth about fifty thousand dollars; blueberries garner twice as much. The maps resemble battle plans, with armies of trucks fanning out across the continent.

Strawberries can be orange or white, the size of a pinkie tip, oblong, conjoined or bloblike, ecstatic, defiant, ungainly, unique. But you don’t think of them that way. What you picture is a Driscoll’s berry: glossy, red, and heart-shaped, and firm enough to ship to the East Coast or to the Middle East and eat two weeks past the harvest date. Driscoll’s berries tend to lack the sugar rush and perfumed oomph of a tiny sun-warmed heirloom discovered on a country lane. Since the company’s inception, it has placed an emphasis on appearance. “We have helped shape what a strawberry looks like with our relentless focus,” Soren Bjorn, the company’s president, said. Its cultivars—the genetically distinct new varieties it creates through breeding—and the germplasm, the genetic library of plants its breeders can draw on as parents for future cultivars, constitute the company’s intellectual property. Speaking with a legal newspaper, Driscoll’s senior vice-president and general counsel compared the company to its neighbors in Silicon Valley. “Growers are sort of like our manufacturing plants,” he said. “We make the inventions, they assemble it, and then we market it, so it’s not that dissimilar from Apple using someone else to do the manufacturing but they’ve made the invention and marketed the end product.” Like Apple, Driscoll’s guards its I.P. jealously.

Berries are the top-grossing produce in the supermarket. (“I remember when we were little and berries surpassed bananas in revenue,” Brie Reiter Smith, Miles’s oldest daughter, who is the general manager of North American production, said.) According to Frances Dillard, Driscoll’s global brand strategist and a veteran of Disney’s consumer-products division, berries are the produce category most associated with happiness. (Kale, in contrast, has a health-control, “me” focus.) On a slide that Dillard prepared, mapping psychographic associations with various fruits, strawberries floated between Freedom and Harmony, in a zone marked Extrovert, above a word cloud that read “Social, pleasure, joy, balance, conviviality, friendship, warmth, soft, natural, sharing.” (Blueberries vibed as status-oriented, demanding, and high-tech.) As I studied the slide over Dillard’s shoulder in her office, she smiled tightly and said, “This is proprietary.”

In apples, varieties are obvious—Fuji, Braeburn, Honeycrisp—and at farmers’ markets and certain specialty stores strawberries, too, are sold by name. (In early summer, Bi-Rite, a fancy grocer in San Francisco, announced the much anticipated arrival of Seascapes and Chandlers with cardboard strawberries dangling from the ceiling.) But most strawberries meet our mouths anonymously. Compared with tree fruits, which take a decade or two and a small fortune to produce, strawberries are quick and cheap; plants, hardiest in their first year, are ripped out after a single harvest. Growing in microseasons and microclimates, and easily falling victim to mildew, weather, and pests, strawberries are sensitive and fleeting. The contents of a clamshell in April are likely to be Marquis berries from Oxnard, where Driscoll’s has a large operation; by June, they’re probably Del Reys out of Watsonville. It takes about six years to develop and test a cultivar, but Driscoll’s releases several in North America each year; in addition, it maintains breeding programs around the world to furnish its various geographies with berries tailored to the local conditions. (Varieties are made obsolete based on the decisions of an internal group called the Dead Variety Society.) For the shopper, the only impression that matters is the Driscoll’s name, and the red berries, as uniform as soldiers or paper valentines.

For decades, Driscoll’s most forbidding competition has come from an unexpected direction: a thriving strawberry-breeding program at the University of California, Davis, which, for nearly thirty years, was led by Doug Shaw and his colleague Kirk Larson. The program is Driscoll’s antithesis—public, open, nonexclusive—supplying, for a nominal royalty fee, any grower wishing to use its plants, and sharing crucial information about horticulture derived from its research. University berries are not labelled as such, but they account for the vast majority of strawberries grown in California, and in the world. During their time, Shaw and Larson worked assiduously to advance the university’s germplasm, creating crosses that would result in commercial cultivars that farmers deemed worthy of planting; every farm the university supplied was another acre not given over to Driscoll’s.

During the taste-testing at Cassin Ranch, the Joy Makers encouraged me to try Albion, a university berry invented by Shaw, only to deride its physique and criticize its crunchiness. (Two weeks earlier, in Oxnard, I had preferred a university variety in a blind tasting, unleashing a cascade of explanations: this time there would be no chance of embarrassment for either party.) According to Driscoll’s employees, university varieties tended to be dull-hued, malformed, seedy at the tip. I mentioned that my favorite variety was Gaviota, another Shaw berry, which I get from Harry’s Berries at the Friday farmers’ market in my neighborhood, and which to me seems exceptionally complex and flavorful. They quickly disabused me. “There’s nothing special in the genetics,” Michael Schwieterman, a biochemist, said. What I was enjoying was overripe, he said pityingly, and wouldn’t survive the weekend.

Behind the animosity lies a desperation that everyone in the business feels. Even as demand from consumers remains strong, the strawberry industry has been contracting rapidly; there are now thirty per cent fewer acres under cultivation than there were in 2013. (With a sharp decline in migration from Mexico and Central America, the primary sources of agricultural labor for half a century, “stoop work”—jobs requiring harvesters to crouch doubled over for hours a day—has become difficult to hire for. Nearly every farm I passed in Watsonville, in May and June, had a sign by the road saying “Se Solicitan Piscadores.” At the same time, changing minimum-wage and overtime laws have made labor more expensive.) A suite of troublesome diseases has emerged as long-standing soil fumigants are being banned. This past winter, a five-year drought was followed by a Biblical deluge. New varieties are the only way forward, and it is the savviest breeder with access to the best germplasm who will prevail.

According to scholars of medieval art, the strawberry is a symbol of perfect righteousness. But the story of Driscoll’s long dominion begins with what might be perceived as an original sin: in the midst of the Second World War, the group of growers that eventually became Driscoll’s got hold of the university’s germplasm, hired its chief breeders, and created a strawberry leviathan.

By then, the Reiters were established berry growers, alongside their relatives the Driscolls. The first Reiter, a butcher who eventually farmed near Watsonville, where there was a nascent strawberry industry, came to California from Alsace in 1849. Wild strawberries grew abundantly in the sandy soils along the Central Coast; in “A History of the Strawberry,” Stephen Wilhelm and James Sagen write that, in peak season, Native Americans would camp beside the patches and eat for a week. The conditions were ideal: cold fog in the morning, mild sun in the afternoon. The butcher’s son, J. E. (Ed) Reiter, started growing with his brother-in-law, R. F. (Dick) Driscoll. One summer, Ed’s sister, visiting friends at a guest ranch in Shasta County, was served some especially sweet and shapely berries for breakfast; when she got back to Watsonville, she told her brother, setting in motion what family members thereafter referred to as “the California strawberry gold rush.”

In 1904, at Cassin Ranch, Reiter and Driscoll planted the berry that came to be called Banner. Other berries at the time were awkward and irregular; Banners were exceptionally consistent. Already shrewd marketers, the brothers-in-law began an energetic promotional campaign, declaring Banner “A Wonder: The talk of the Pacific Coast. People write about it to their Eastern Friends.” For more than a decade, Driscoll and Reiter maintained exclusive access to Banner, but eventually most farmers on the Pacific Coast had it. “There were no plant-patent laws,” Miles Reiter, a gentlemanly, white-haired man in his sixties, who studied history at Princeton, told me. “Ultimately, there was no way to keep it to yourself.”

The pursuit of new strawberry breeds was a hotly competitive area of agriculture—“The Small Fruits of New York,” published in 1925, lists more than a thousand varieties—but Mendel’s theory of genetics had only recently been rediscovered, and many promising varieties were created by chance pollination or dimly understood laws of reproduction. (One Cincinnati strawberry farmer briefly controlled ninety per cent of the market in his city because he had grasped that the variety he was planting required a particular approach to pollination, a sexual secret that the Cincinnati Horticultural Society devoted two years to investigating; its subsequent report drove down the price of berries and forced the farmer out of business.) An oddity of strawberry reproductive life made the fruit ideal for commercialization, and prone to theft. Strawberries are self-cloning; “mothers” send out runners, creating genetically identical “daughters.” This was also a problem in the fruit-tree business, where clones can be created by grafting, and in the first decades of the twentieth century nurserymen began to agitate for protection from copiers. One large Missouri nursery, the exclusive carrier of the Red Delicious apple, built a fence around its mother tree and asked buyers to sign contracts promising not to propagate. When that didn’t work, the nursery appealed to Congress. Thomas Edison sent a telegram supporting legislation, saying, “Nothing that Congress could do to help farming would be of greater value and permanence than to give to the plant breeder the same status as the mechanical and chemical inventors now have through the patent law.” The Plant Patent Act, which described breeders as inventors, passed in 1930, and became a cornerstone of intellectual-property law.

The Driscolls and the Reiters had enjoyed the advantages of controlling a breed, but, after a twenty-year run, Banner fell victim to “the yellows,” a viral infection spread by strawberry aphids. Looking for disease-resistant plants to cross into the Banner line, the plant-pathology department at the University of California at Berkeley began to collect germplasm. Under the guidance of Harold Thomas, a brilliant pathologist, and his talented field manager, Earl Goldsmith, the department established a breeding program, systematically inventing and releasing new strawberry varieties. The primary objective, according to a history by Henry Wallace, who served as the Secretary of Agriculture in the nineteen-thirties, was “a large, firm berry which could be picked one-fourth green and which could stand shipping to the east coast.”

The strawberry industry in the early twentieth century was dominated by Japanese immigrants, who represented not only the labor force but also some of the most experienced growers. In 1942, when the Japanese were forced into internment camps, the business effectively collapsed. According to the Reiters, Ned Driscoll, Dick’s son, was one of the few farmers still planting strawberries during the war, testing crosses invented by Thomas and Goldsmith. By the mid-forties, the university was making plans to suspend its strawberry-breeding program. Rather than accept reassignment, Thomas and Goldsmith quit the university and went to work for Ned.

Family lore has it that in 1944 Ned Driscoll and some grower friends pooled their gas rations and drove to the university plots to rescue the life’s work of Thomas and Goldsmith: untold thousands of strawberry seedlings, representing precious university germplasm. “We usually say that the launch of Driscoll’s was in 1944,” Miles Reiter told me. “That was initiated by the abandonment of the U.C. Berkeley breeding program. Which would have been lost otherwise.” Ned Driscoll appointed Goldsmith his breeder and Thomas the director of a new research institute, which later merged with an exclusive growers’ collective that Ned and his cousin Joe Reiter formed—the precursor to the modern Driscoll’s. (Family records indicate that the institute paid a thousand dollars for the germplasm, which was made available to other growers, too, but those other growers hadn’t hired Thomas and Goldsmith.) Herb Baum, the former Naturipe director, told me that the Reiter and Driscoll families were “smart enough to know, If we can get this material and have a monopoly, we’re going to make a fortune.”

In spite of what Thomas and Goldsmith, and the Driscolls and the Reiters, believed in 1944, the university did not abandon its breeding program. In 1945, the university, which presumably retained copies of plants that left the collection, released five new varieties, designed by Thomas and Goldsmith and named for the mountains and lakes of California. It moved its laboratories north from Berkeley to Davis, and hired breeders to take up where the others had left off. Under the new breeders, strawberries grew to be one of California’s most significant and lucrative crops. But, in the meantime, Driscoll’s had begun its ascent.

Developing successful cultivars from a set of potential parents depends on intuition, experience, sensibility, and luck, as much as it does on systematic data collection and dogged trial and error. With the university’s plants, the Driscolls and the Reiters gained access both to a rich and diverse source of genetic traits and to the expertise of the two men who had studied that source for decades. In 1946, Thomas and Goldsmith crossed two university varieties, only one of which was widely available, yielding what at first appeared to be an unimpressive plant of uncertain commercial value. In an account provided by Driscoll’s, Thomas writes that nevertheless Goldsmith “did recognize it as having a fruit character of excellent quality.” He and Goldsmith kept at it, testing and adjusting the growing regimen until they had “perhaps the finest commercial strawberry ever developed.” In 1958, they released it as Z5A, Driscoll’s first proprietary cultivar, a blockbuster berry that would prove momentous for the company. Z5A could withstand shipping; equally important, it fruited in the late summer and early fall, giving Driscoll’s berries in the months when other growers had none. With that, the company was on its way to becoming a grocery-store staple, a nationwide brand that markets could rely on enough to build display cases around.

The strapping, broad-shouldered modern strawberry that Driscoll’s exemplifies is the product of a cross between a Virginian male and a Chilean female that took place in France in the eighteenth century. The female was imported by a French Army intelligence officer, who, on a reconnaissance mission to South America, spotted the berry growing along the coast near Concepción; he described it as being as “big as a walnut, and sometimes as a hen’s egg, of a whitish red, and somewhat less delicious of taste than our Wood strawberries.” The Virginian was bright scarlet, and, according to an apothecary at Nuremberg who published a treatise on the medicinal garden there, “consistently large, the size of a plum, fleshy, and of an excellent flavor and fragrance.” The cross resulted in Fragaria x ananassa, whose pineapple-scented fruit an early taxonomist declared to be “monstrous,” in a good way.

As the cost of growing berries rises, Driscoll’s must find ways of enticing people to pay more for them. Recently, the company built a consumer lab equipped with a gas chromatograph and a gene-sequencing machine, so that the Joy Makers could begin to pick apart the scientific components of flavor and figure out how best to appeal to a public whose idea of “strawberry” is influenced by strawberry syrup and red Popsicles. Dillard, the brand strategist, dreams of a ten-dollar clamshell filled with splurge-worthy super-premium berries. Bjorn, the company’s president, says, “Consumers have to be more satisfied, or what we call more delighted, all the time.” Produce companies tend to be driven by supply: what they grow, they try to sell. Driscoll’s, conversely, sees itself as a consumer-products company. According to Bjorn, “We create the demand. It’s more like a Procter & Gamble.” Through the efforts of the Joy Makers, Driscoll’s is trying to do the equivalent of adding body-butter-enhanced shave-gel bars between razor blades.

One day at Cassin Ranch, Phil Stewart, the strawberry geneticist, took me into his greenhouse. Germplasm was everywhere: geriatric university stock; plants from a public seed bank maintained by the U.S.D.A.; others foraged by Driscoll’s employees on backpacking trips. In one corner, Stewart was running hydroponic tests on a cross between a Driscoll’s variety and Fragaria chiloensis, which was picked up on a beach in Santa Cruz. “The beach species is exceptionally tolerant of salt, because it evolved on sand dunes,” Stewart said—a compelling quality, because drought and fertilizers cause salts to accumulate in soil. To explore the limits of this capacity, he was growing a leathery, dark-green plant in a tub of heavily salted water. (An oversized jar of Morton salt sat nearby.) Half the plant’s leaves looked like potato chips, and its roots were a brown mess.

Deeper in the greenhouse, we came upon a droopy little berry that looked like a gnome hat felted by a Waldorf mom. It was a moschata, or musk strawberry, possibly the kind that Bosch supersized in “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” This particular variety, Mr. Zuks, was thought to have been grown by Thomas Jefferson; Stewart ordered it from a nursery that works with Monticello. (Based on Jefferson’s writings, Stewart believes that Jefferson got it from an Italian friend, who got it from a Pole.) The shelf life is pathetic—berries picked in the morning are trash by the afternoon—but it is strongly resistant to mildew. Even more interesting to the Joy Makers is its aromatic profile, which reflects an abundance of methyl anthranilate, an ester that is rarely found in cultivated varieties, and that calls to mind grape Jolly Ranchers (though it can also have a whiff of Gorgonzola).

Like much of what I saw in the greenhouse, Mr. Zuks was part of an intensive effort under way at Driscoll’s to recast the parameters of Fragaria x ananassa, established some three centuries ago. “You have a random event that happened in France that defined what we think of as the strawberry,” Judson Ward, a molecular biologist at Driscoll’s, said. “We’re going back to the wild and picking up new traits. We have people just as capable of identifying good flavors as whoever it was in France who happened upon that strawberry.” In the revision process, the company is deliberately reversing some of its own breeding biases, as mainstream consumers become increasingly interested in dainty shapes and offbeat tastes. Ward mentioned that Stewart had made a cross with a wild berry from Alaska. “It was like a fantasy of what people imagine picking wild strawberries is like,” Ward said. “They were all cute little things. Each one has a different flavor, so it is like that experience that people want to have in the wild.” Dillard added, “I think we have some packaging on that!”

The next day, I visited the consumer lab. It was spacious, consisting of two rooms, and had a determined-to-be-cheerful air, with an orange-painted wall and a whiteboard on which someone had doodled a picture of a raspberry plant over a diagram of a chemical compound. Michael Schwieterman, the biochemist, sat at a computer looking at an array of data from the gas chromatograph comparing commercially available Driscoll’s varieties with two old European Fragaria vescas, or wood strawberries: a moschata and a tiny, elegant French variety, Mara des Bois, popular among epicures.

“We can look at methyl anthranilate,” Schwieterman said, clicking onto a screen that described the aromatic as “sweet and fruity, Concord grapes, with musty and berry nuance.” He pointed to a graph that resembled a staircase. “In a commercial strawberry, there is practically none,” he said of the methyl anthranilate. (Only the Mara des Bois exhibited its presence.) “In those vescas, there’s a twenty-to-fifty-fold increase. In those moschatas, it’s through the roof.” Methyl anthranilate, he said, is “what potentially is different about wild strawberries and commercial strawberries. That’s why we have a lot of focus on it. French consumers really like Mara des Bois, and people like wild strawberries.”

On the next screen, Schwieterman showed me concentrations of gamma-Decalactone, which suggests “fruity, creamy, peach and apricot with a syrupy, fatty nuance.” In contrast to methyl anthranilate, it was highly prevalent in commercial varieties and scarce in wild ones. He explained that Driscoll’s and other breeders, liking the flavor, yet oblivious of the chemistry, had crossed it in. “It’s potentially an anthropomorphic artifact,” he said. Another compound, cinnamyl acetate, showed up in some of the berries. “Would that be good, if we planted a variety that had a cinnamon kind of flavor?” Schwieterman went on, “What about reconstructing a basil flavor in a strawberry? This species has one component that’s pretty important to basil, and one of our commercial species has another. What would happen if we introgressed that and got multiple compounds in a strawberry? You’d have a strawberry that’s going to taste great with your salad and balsamic dressing, because it has a nice basil undertone.” Driscoll’s hopes that its breeders can use this information to create new cultivars, producing strawberries as you would a track, dialling down the greasy peach and laying in some cinnamon and must, over a bass line of drought tolerance.

As the head of the strawberry-breeding program at Davis, Doug Shaw—effectively Driscoll’s chief rival—took a traditional approach, advancing the germplasm by stalking the fields to find the highest-yielding, best-looking, tastiest berries. Looking to the wild for exotic traits—that would be absurd. A formidable if cantankerous and territorial breeder, Shaw was loyal to the growers who depended on his cultivars and uninterested in working with proprietary companies like Driscoll’s. The program’s patented plants, grown by farmers in California and around the world, generated some hundred million dollars in revenue for the university. (As inventors, Shaw and Larson earned as much as two million dollars a year in royalties.) But, in 2011, as Shaw prepared for retirement, he began to worry that the university was shifting its focus from field work to the well-funded area of genomics. Where would the cultivars come from?

Like Thomas and Goldsmith before them, Shaw and Larson decided to leave the university for the private sector. Working with their superiors in the department of plant sciences, they proposed “spinning out” a breeding company “based in U.C. germplasm.” If the university was no longer interested in commercializing the germplasm, Shaw and Larson would be happy to make use of it. In particular, Shaw wanted access to the varieties that he had developed but had not yet released. “My motivation?” Shaw said. “I’d say it’s more ego than anything else. I want my cultivars to be used.” After his retirement, Shaw joined California Berry Cultivars, a new proprietary company that hopes to compete with Driscoll’s in the race to invent a superior berry. But in May, while the Joy Makers were eating berries in the sun, he stood accused in federal court in San Francisco of having stolen the university’s germplasm.

Shaw is sixty-three, with a rust-colored boot-brush mustache and a high bloom in his cheeks. His eyes, which he squints warily, are the color of gingerbread. He’s red-green color-blind, and tends to pick his berries by their sheen. “You’re looking at maybe the best place on earth for strawberries,” he told me in June, as we surveyed a field of strawberry plants at the headquarters of California Berry Cultivars, in Watsonville. Monterey cypresses stooped witchily, wind-bent; in the near distance, the Pacific Ocean was visible behind fog. “The soil is ninety-six per cent sand, and we get this fog that you’re seeing right here every day in the summer.” He dug his shoe into the soil, kicking up a flint-knapped arrowhead—he has a collection—and nodded toward a nearby building with a porch. “One of my favorite things to do is sit there and look out,” he said. Interestingly, C.B.C. had arranged to lease the same piece of land the university had once leased for its breeding program. Shaw knew it well, as did most of the people C.B.C. had hired to manage the fields and collect data; they were former Davis employees.

Shaw’s troubles began in 2013, when a strawberry research-and-marketing commission filed a lawsuit against the university, claiming that giving Shaw access to the germplasm would be “a classic case of the fox guarding the henhouse.” In May, Jane Fujishige Yada, a farmer who is a partner in C.B.C., testified that the commission’s lawyer had said that the lawsuit was intended to “prevent Doug Shaw from breeding again.” She went on, “At that point, I think I got my first inkling that our little C.B.C. company might be going up against a pretty big—pretty big five-hundred-pound gorilla in the industry.” In the months leading up to Shaw’s retirement, the university tried to get him to submit a patent for the unreleased cultivars, in order to assert its right to make use of Shaw’s intimate knowledge of the plants. Shaw refused.

A. G. Kawamura, a former state secretary of food and agriculture and a major grower who serves as the president of C.B.C., believes that the commission’s lawsuit originated with what he has described as “competitive angst” on the part of the proprietary companies. He told me, “The proprietary companies have an opportunity to benefit from no more competition from new and improved varieties.” When I broached the subject, the commission denied that Driscoll’s had influenced the lawsuit. Miles Reiter called the suggestion “totally fabricated.”

In 2016, frustrated that Shaw couldn’t get a license to breed with the cultivars, C.B.C. decided to sue the university, claiming that it had “risked the loss and destruction of the varieties, and has put them in a ‘black hole,’ ” suppressing competition and denying Shaw the benefit of his own inventions. What was at stake, C.B.C. said, was nothing less than the future of the strawberry industry. Without new cultivars, growers dependent on the university could not continue. Only Driscoll’s and a few other proprietary companies would survive. Fujishige Yada testified, “If anybody’s ever had a strawberry in California, it was probably created by Doug or Kirk. . . . My concern was that we wouldn’t have those new varieties in the pipeline to grow, as farmers.” To others, it just looked like history repeating itself. Baum, the retired strawberry executive, said, “If you make any kind of deal letting Shaw and that group have those materials, you are going to be doing the same thing that happened with the university and Driscoll’s, giving them the same kind of a hold that Driscoll’s had for fifty years. They could easily eclipse Driscoll’s.”

The university, in a countersuit, accused Shaw of illegally breeding with the pipeline cultivars on behalf of his new company, while still employed by Davis. Entrusted with the “crown jewels,” the university contended, Shaw had attempted to destroy the public breeding program in order to enrich himself and his friends. Steven Knapp is a genomics expert, formerly of Monsanto, who was hired as Davis’s new breeder. When I talked to him by phone not long ago, he was apoplectic at what he perceived to be Shaw’s breach of loyalty. “It’s one of the worst conspiracies I’ve ever seen by a faculty member,” he said. “They did it while they had the keys to the castle! They had the plants in their own hands.” Contrary to what C.B.C. had claimed, he said, the program was not dead. Knapp had sequenced the strawberry genome and secured a multimillion-dollar grant, and would be releasing new cultivars in the fall.

I was in the courtroom when the jury’s verdict came back, siding decisively with the university. A DNA expert from Yale had found that seedlings in C.B.C.’s field, crossed in Spain in 2014, had university parentage. After the verdict, I drove a couple of hours down to Watsonville to see Kyle VandenLangenberg, a young breeder at C.B.C., and Lucky Westwood, who works for a large shipper called California Giant Berry Farm, which is also a partner in the business. Whatever happened next in the legal battle with the university, Westwood said, “we don’t intend to stop.” (Settlement talks are under way.)

We walked around the field, filled with hybrids that Shaw had designed, including the contentious 2014 Spanish crosses. Those were in a legal limbo, and might need to be destroyed. The rulings and decisions, Shaw later wrote me, had created obstacles, but they were not insurmountable. “Long-term success will depend on what you know, not what you have,” he wrote. I.P., he seemed to be insisting, lives in the inventor’s head.

Westwood, however, wasn’t thinking about the Spanish crosses; he was looking for something else. “Is this the one?” he said.

“The one they can’t take away!” VandenLangenberg crowed when he came upon the right row. Like Shaw, who trained him, VandenLangenberg is color-blind. With help, he found a ripe berry, red and plump and nicely shaped. It looked like a commercial fruit—with luck, it would be available in five years—and, best of all, it had no U.C. parentage. I asked where it had come from. “We’re not going to talk about it,” VandenLangenberg said. The information was proprietary. ♦

 

9-29-16

Phys.org

Pesticide predicament for California's strawberry growers

Melissa De Witte

https://phys.org/news/2016-09-pesticide-predicament-california-strawberry-growers.html

The powerful fumigant methyl bromide will be retired from California's strawberry fields at the end of this year after more than 20 years of fierce debate over its effects and alternatives.

According to new research published by UC Santa Cruz professor and food studies expert Julie Guthman, these debates often pit the health and well-being of farm workers against the economic viability of growers while overlooking the constraints and availability of farm land.

Guthman has spent the past several years immersed—literally and figuratively—in the field to better understand the challenges the strawberry industry faces in a post-methyl bromide world.

"California strawberry growers are in a position in which they have to change a pesticide regime that has served them well," Guthman writes in the Journal of Rural Studies. The article reports on part of a larger research project she has conducted with support from the National Science Foundation.

Methyl bromide's costs and benefits

Strawberry growers in California have long depended on methyl bromide, the most effective chemical to control soil-borne pathogens and weeds. Its widespread use has helped make strawberries one of California's most lucrative crops. In 2014, annual sales totaled $2.5 billion.

But methyl bromide is also hazardous to humans and the environment. Because of its documented impact on the ozone layer, the Montreal Protocol mandated a global phase-out as part of its 1987 pact to reduce ozone-depleting substances. Despite U.S. promises to stop importing and producing the substance, California farmers have long continued its use thanks to what's known as a "critical use exemption (CUE)."

Lag in developing substitutes

Because of these exemptions, the California strawberry industry lagged in developing substitutes, Guthman says. Simply put, growers felt they did not need to find alternatives, she writes in a recent issue of California Agriculture that explores the future of the strawberry industry. CUEs gave growers hope that the exemptions would persist. As a result research into less toxic solutions slowed.

For example, one alternative was methyl iodide, a pre-plant fumigant that was developed as a substitute, but became even more controversial than the compound it was meant to replace. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation allowed it on the market despite findings of its own agency scientists that it could result in significant health risks to farm workers and the general population.

Opposition surged. How could the DPR register methyl iodide against its own internal recommendations, opponents charged. Earthjustice, an environmental law organization, and California Rural Legal Assistance sued the DPR for failing to follow environmental law and be transparent in their decision-making process. Just before a judge was to rule on the dispute, methyl iodide's licensee Arystra LifeScience pulled it off the market saying it was no longer economically viable.

Guthman wanted to know why. She discovered that the main reason many farmers didn't touch the pesticide was fear of public backlash. In the run-up to the legal proceedings, more than 53,000 people submitted comments contesting the chemical. Farmers feared protesters in their fields and were worried that consumers would not buy berries linked to the pesticide.

"Activism contributed to the withdrawal of methyl iodide; it scared many shippers and growers into non-adoption and made extension agents and pest-control advisors skeptical of promoting it," Guthman says.

Alternatives and community health

Other alternatives to methyl bromide still come at a human cost. Growers are continuing to use chloropicrin, another soil fumigant, which has long been used in combination with methyl bromide. However, both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state DPR have designated it a toxic air contaminant. As a result, DPR has recently mandated increased buffer zones, extended waiting periods for tarp removal and increased monitoring requirements, all to mitigate environmental harm to the community.

However, as Guthman has argued, these mitigation efforts still fail to adequately protect the lives of farmworkers.

"Buffer zones cannot meaningfully protect those who apply the fumigants, work in nearby fields, or work in treated fields post-fumigation," writes Guthman. Neighbors' lives are privileged over workers, she argues.

What about organics?

With strawberry growers facing strict regulatory constraints, why not switch from conventional to organic growing practices?

Guthman says that many growers are experimenting with organics because of the high prices organic strawberries receive in the market. But it is still not an economic option for some.

"Transitioning involves avoiding the application of disallowed substances for three years, while not receiving the price premium for organics," Guthman writes in her Journal of Rural Studies article.

Furthermore, agricultural land is costly and scarce, Guthman notes, especially on California's central coast where growers compete with developers for prime real estate ideal for growing strawberries.

In short, Guthman finds the strawberry industry is in a real bind. Her next book will explore the historical origins of the predicament and will look at how the factors underwriting the industry's success have changed into threats.


10-3-16

The Nation

Why These Farm Workers Went On Strike—and Why It Matters

Months of strikes and organizing in Washington led to the first U.S. farmworker union in years. 

 

David Bacon

https://www.thenation.com/article/why-these-farm-workers-went-on-strike-and-why-it-matters/

Burlington, WAThere is not much love lost between the owners of Sakuma Brothers Farms and Ramon Torres, the president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia. Sakuma Brothers is one of the largest berry growers in Washington state, and Familias Unidas is a grassroots union organized by the company’s workers. Torres used to work in the Sakuma fields. He was fired after the pickers went on strike in 2013.

This month, on September 12, the workers finally voted to demonstrate support for a union after years of organizing. This election is a watershed: Familias Unidas por la Justicia is the first union organized by farm workers in the United States in many years.

The balloting took place over four hours at the company office, two hours north of Seattle, surrounded by Sakuma’s blueberry fields. After all the votes had been cast, Torres and a small group of workers and supporters drove over to the polling place to watch the count. A company manager balked, however. The votes wouldn’t be tallied as long as Torres was on the property, he said.

After a lot of arguing, the workers retired to a local schoolyard, together with Richard Ahearn, former regional director of the National Labor Relations Board. There, on the tailgate of a pickup belonging to State Senator John McCoy, Ahearn counted the ballots. The result: 195 for the union, and 58 against.

This ended up being an appropriate place to tally the votes after all. “The majority of students at that elementary school are Latino, Senator McCoy has been a fierce advocate for these workers, and this is as much a public victory as a union victory,” said Jeff Johnson, who heads the Washington State Labor Council for the AFL-CIO.

The union is a grassroots organization formed by the pickers themselves, and is led by indigenous Mixtec and Triqui migrants from the southern Mexico states of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Chiapas. A union contract at Sakuma Brothers could give this union the stability and resources needed to make substantial changes in the economic conditions of its own members, and of farm workers across western Washington.

Strikes and organizing among agricultural laborers, especially indigenous migrants, have been on the rise all along the Pacific coast over the last several years. What happened in Burlington will further raise the expectations of thousands of people working in the fields, from northern Mexico to the Canadian border. “This is a new dawn,” Torres said. “When we were celebrating afterwards, people began saying, ‘From now on we know what the future of our children is going to be.’”

The union in Burlington won the loyalty of the Sakuma workforce through three picking seasons of strikes and direct action. Almost all of the work stoppages challenged the company over low wages and its methods for calculating the “piece rate,” which is a pay rate based on how much the workers pick. Before he was fired in 2013, Torres was chosen by workers as their spokesperson while attempting to set what they considered fair rate: one that would guarantee $14 per hour.

“Last year they were paying $10 an hour, which they say is a lot,” said Familias Unidas vice-president Felimon Pineda, a Mixtec picker and former Sakuma employee. “But they demanded fifty pounds per hour to get $10. For five pounds more there was a bonus of $1.50, or $11.50 an hour. Only the workers who work fast could get that, though.” When workers walked out to protest, supervisors called the police to expel Pineda from the field.

When the season began this year in June, workers walked out over a piece rate of 24 cents per pound for picking strawberries. In August, FUJ members in Sakuma blueberry fields walked out again. A day earlier, workers explained, management was paying 60 cents per pound, and then lowered the price to 56 cents.

During all the walkouts, workers also demanded that Sakuma sign a union contract.

“People are tired of low pay,” Torres said, “but that’s not all of it. Many come up from California for the harvest, getting here broke with no guarantee they’ll get a room in the labor camp, and the conditions are bad there anyway. People feel humiliated, and denied basic respect.”

A 35-member union committee of workers in the field organized the walk-outs. In addition, the union has another 25-member committee shaping anger over conditions into proposals for a union contract.

In 2013, Sakuma’s owners seemed willing to negotiate with the workers, but when those talks failed to raise piece rates, the new union launched a boycott of the company’s berries. The boycott initially focused on local sales under Sakuma Brothers’ own label. But soon the workers discovered that Sakuma was selling berries through one of the largest agricultural marketers in the country, Driscoll Strawberry Associates.

Driscoll’s is the largest berry distributor in the world. It does not grow its own berries, but controls berry production by contracted farmers. It has contracted growers in several countries, and has received loans guaranteeing foreign investment from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a U.S. government agency.

Marketing berries has become highly monopolized. Four shippers control one-third of all blueberry shipments in the United States. During the peak season, Driscoll’s moves 3.8 million pounds of fruit daily, and up to 80 percent of the fruit is shipped on the same day it’s received from growers. Sakuma Brothers has been supplying berries to Driscoll’s for 25 years.

An extremely positive company profile on the front page of the business section of The New York Times the day before the Sakuma election (and which did not mention the boycott, the election, labor strife, or even the farm workers themselves who produce Driscoll’s berries) announced Driscoll’s new national marketing campaign. While the company wouldn’t tell the Times how much it was spending, the article estimated that similar campaigns spend $10-20 million on advertising.

“The public will get an introduction to the people Driscoll’s calls its Joy Makers—agronomists, breeders, sensory analysts, plant pathologists and entomologists who will explain how the company creates its berries,” the article enthused.

Rosalinda Guillen, director of Community2Community, a farm worker cooperative and advocacy organization in Bellingham, says Driscoll’s public relations campaigns might make it more vulnerable to a boycott. “It made the company more exposed, because of the way it markets itself,” she explained. Guillen started helping farm workers organize unions in Washington over two decades ago, and spent several years with the United Farm Workers in California. When the strikes first erupted at Sakuma Brothers in 2013, asked her to help plan strategy and organize support.

Starting in the area between Seattle and Burlington, the workers urged students and progressive community activists to set up boycott committees and begin picketing supermarkets, and asked shoppers not to buy Driscoll’s berries. As that activity increased, Torres and several workers and supporters made a trip down the west coast this spring, setting up more committees as they went.

“I wouldn’t say (the boycott) is threatening the survival of the farm. I would say it’s an annoyance,” Sakuma spokesman Roger van Oosten claimed earlier this year. Maybe so, but the company is starting to feel the effects of labor pressure. It had to give $87,160 in retroactive pay to pickers who worked in 2014, after a court ruled piece-rate workers must be paid separately for ten-minute rest breaks. And in a 2013 class-action lawsuit brought by two Sakuma workers alleging pay violations, Sakuma settled out of court by paying 408 workers $500,000 and their lawyers $350,000.

Driscoll’s image also took a hit after a strike organized by pickers in the San Quintin Valley of Baja California in 2015, when as many as 60,000 farm workers stopped work and confronted heavy police repression. Last year these workers also decided to organize an independent union, and announced their support for a Driscoll’s boycott. The area’s largest grower, BerryMex, is owned by the Reiter family, which also owns Driscoll’s.

Sakuma Farms and BerryMex aren’t just connected by a common distributor, Driscoll’s, but by the workforce that picks the berries. Agricultural labor in virtually all the berry fields on the Pacific Coast comes from the stream of indigenous migrants from southern Mexico.

“We are all part of a movement of indigenous people,” Pineda says. “In San Quentin the majority of people are indigenous, and speak Mixteco, Zapoteco, Triqui, and Nahuatl. Their strike movement is indigenous. Everyone involved in our union in Washington is indigenous also.”

As a result, the movement of workers is as much a protest against anti-indigenous racism as it is about low wages. “No matter if you’re from Guatemala or Honduras, Chiapas or Guerrero – the right to be human is for everyone, Pineda added. “But sometimes people see us as being very low. They think we have no rights. They’re wrong. The right to be human is the same. There should be respect for all.”

 

In Guillen’s view, indigenous culture plays a huge role, especially people’s collective decision-making process. The strong bonds of culture and language create an ability for the union to grow stronger.” Workers were also hardened, she believes, by the strikes. “The strikes were the only way to present the company with their grievances,” she explained, “and gave farm workers the sense that by acting together with community support they could actually win something. New workers joined in every time. A few people got fired, but they didn’t fall away, and kept supporting the organization.”

In May this upsurge among indigenous farm workers erupted in California as well. Over 400 farm workers in McFarland, in the San Joaquin Valley, walked out of the fields at another grower protesting low wages and company abuse. The farm’s owner, the Klein Management Company, produces clamshell boxes of blueberries sold under the Gourmet Trading Company label.

“The majority of the people here are from Oaxaca—Mixtecos and Zapotecos,” explained Paulino Morelos, who comes from Putla, a town in Oaxaca. At the beginning of the blueberry-picking season in April, the company was paying pickers 95 cents per pound. By mid-May, the price had dropped to 70 cents, and then 65 cents. Finally, the company announced it was dropping it again, to 60 cents. Workers refused to go in to pick. After leaving the fields, workers approached the United Farm Workers, which filed a petition for a union election. The union won by a vote of 347 to 68.

Winning an election is one thing, but negotiating a contract is another. Familias Unidas por la Justicia called off their boycott when Sakuma Brothers agreed to an election followed by negotiations. But the boycott threat is still a powerful motive for reaching agreement.

The union and Sakuma also settled on a mechanism for making a contract even more likely: there is a date certain for the conclusion of bargaining, and if an agreement isn’t reached, the offers will be submitted to arbitration, with the arbiter choosing one proposal to prevail.

California has a law, called mandatory mediation, with virtually the same arrangement. Signed into law in 2002, it has been used by the UFW to get contracts at several large companies. This law, however, is now on appeal before the state’s Supreme Court, challenged by Gerawan Farms in Fresno, one of the world’s largest peach growers.

Torres, Pineda, Guillen and the FUJ workers all expect that their movement will move beyond Sakuma Brothers. “We already have members in other ranches,” Torres said, “who want the same things we do.”

Almost all the migrant workers who make up Familias Unidas have been living in the U.S. for many years, however. They cannot go back to Mexico, or cross the border to return to the U.S. They are at the northern end of a migrant journey that took many, like Pineda, through San Quintin or the other agricultural valleys of northern Mexico years ago. About half live in California, and come to Washington for the harvest every year. But Pineda and an increasing number are settling in Washington for good.

Organizing the union at Sakuma Brothers is part of putting down roots in northern Washington. “This is the end of the road for them,” Guillen explains. “There’s no place else to go. Workers won this election because they know what they want. They have families here, and are looking for a better future for their kids. It’s not a temporary job for them. They’re part of this community.”

3-13-15

San Diego Union

Grower announces pay hikes

Sandra Dibble

http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/border-baja-california/sdut-san-quintin-strawberry-san-quintin-driscoll-2015mar31-htmlstory.html

On the heels of a farm workers strike that threatened one of Baja California’s main agricultural exports, a major U.S. strawberry distributor has announced pay hikes ranging from 20 to 40 percent for its field workers.

“This helps raise the bar for everybody,” Soren Bjorn, executive vice president, Driscoll’s of the Americas, said in an interview on Tuesday. Driscoll’s markets and distributes berries grown by Berrymex in the San Quintin area.

The changes come after a strike launched March 17 by a group called the Alliance of National, State and Municipal Organizations for Social Justice. Most of the workers have returned to their jobs, but a group of several hundred was in Mexicali on Tuesday, continuing to push for higher wages and improved working conditions.

“For us, the fight continues,” said Fidel Sanchez, one of the group’s main spokesmen.

Berrymex is one of the largest growers in the San Quintin area, an agricultural region that focuses on the export market. At peak periods, as many as 31,000 field workers are employed in the area, according to government figures.

Hector Lujan, chief operating officer for Berrymex, said the newly announced pay increases affect some 4,000 Berrymex field workers. For high-performing contract workers paid by the crate of picked strawberries, the raises could increase their earning capacity from 35 to 40 percent, according to Berrymex and Driscoll’s. A Driscoll’s news release said that the changes would benefit workers “by increasing their earning opportunity to an average of $5 to $9 per hour.”

The company's minimum pay scale for a day’s work will increase by 20 percent, Lujan said.

Neither executive would say precisely how much workers will be paid under the new scale, only referring to percentages. The changes went into effect Thursday — the day before the major growers group in the area, the Baja California Agricultural Council, announced a 15 percent hike that it said was “unprecedented,” but was criticized by strike leaders are too low.

3-6-15

Scientific American

California Farmers Confront Ominous Groundwater Shortage

Drought and saltier aquifers pose threats to the biggest farming state in the U.S.

 Debra KahnClimateWire  

 https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/california-farmers-confront-ominous-groundwater-shortage/

California's perpetual problem of groundwater depletion has gotten so dire that people are actually working to solve it.

 In California, groundwater deposits are getting saltier as cities and farms extract more water than is replenished naturally, allowing ocean water into the porous aquifers. One of the worst areas for it is the Pajaro Valley, a small farming community near Santa Cruz. In a state that has long touted itself as the nation's No. 1 agricultural producer, the seawater has worked its way into groundwater deposits roughly 3 miles inland from the coast.

Water experts and state officials were in a conference room at the corporate headquarters of massive berry grower Driscoll's in Watsonville last week to discuss the issue and try to amplify it.

"The state of California has to deal with groundwater, or we're going to ruin this state," said Miles Reiter, CEO of Driscoll's, which has operations in six states as well as Argentina, Canada, Chile and Mexico.

 

 

Driscoll's executives are uncommonly frank about the hard realities California is faced with because they are unavoidable in the Pajaro Valley, which gets more than 90 percent of its water from groundwater.

Some farmers in the valley are already at the point where their groundwater water is too saline to use.

"There are a handful of customers that take our delivered water; their wells have gone so salty they can't irrigate with it," said Brian Lockwood, senior hydrologist for the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency (PVMWA), which completed a pipeline in 2008 to deliver recycled irrigation water to Monterey and Santa Cruz counties from a recycled water treatment plant. "It's only our delivered water that keeps their farms running."

Reiter has been working for the last five years to save water and help implement a 2010 goal by the PVMWA, which in cooperation with the U.S. Geological Survey found that the basin needs an average of 12,100 acre-feet of water returned back to it each year in order to balance the deficit.

"There's more storage, more recharge, less extraction by better farming, and maybe less extraction by areas not being farmed," he said. "And it's all got to add up to about [12,000] to 18,000 acre-feet in a normal year."

Regulations loom
With first-ever state groundwater regulations signed last year and implementation looming, state agriculture and water officials are hoping Driscoll's will serve as an example for others. The company hopes to bring the basin into balance much sooner than 2040, as the state law requires (
E&ENews PM, Sept. 16, 2014).

That doesn't mean they're looking forward to it.

"It's going to be a nightmare if the thing's successful; it's really going to be an awful experience," Reiter said, "only exceeded by the experience of not doing anything."

Driscoll's won't say exactly how much water it and its growers use per year, but it's a lot.

"We are a conglomeration of independent growers who account for many agricultural acres in the region," said Emily Paddock, Driscoll's northern region water resource manager. "We recognize that Driscoll's as a whole is a significant water user, but we don't represent the majority of the water use in the Pajaro Valley."

Overall, farming uses 80 to 85 percent of the water in the Pajaro Valley annually, according to Lockwood. "Of course, agriculture is also the primary economic driver in the valley," he said.

The valley received $800,000 in January from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Regional Conservation Partnership Program that was funded by the 2014 farm bill. It's going toward the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County, which is part of the "community water dialogue" that Driscoll's began in 2010.

The Resource Conservation District gives out funding for projects, including a wireless irrigation network like the one at Driscoll's grower John Eiskamp's berry farm in Watsonville, which uses ceramic-tipped sensors to measure moisture in the soil. The data lets Eiskamp adjust irrigation levels to more precisely meet the plants' needs and prevent overwatering.

Driscoll's is also spearheading a new campaign with other businesses and environmental investor group Ceres to call attention to the state's water issues and participate in the implementation of the groundwater law and the spending of a $7.5 billion water bond approved by voters in November (E&ENews PM, March 5).

"Driscoll's' collaborative approach is really emblematic of what we hope to accomplish with this campaign statewide," said Kirsten James, Ceres' senior manager of water and climate policy.

Record drought focuses minds
While the valley's groundwater depletion has been going on for years, it's exacerbated by the statewide drought, as depletion accelerates when rainfall doesn't enter the aquifers.

Driscoll's started working on this in 2010, after decades of hand-wringing and strife among farmers and water agencies on the central coast. At one point in the early-to-mid 2000s, a $200 million import pipe was under consideration, which the PVMWA backed away from in 2010 due to community opposition.

An initial triumph was an agreement published in a local newspaper that made three declarations: The Pajaro Valley is important for agriculture, the import pipeline is not an option, and there will be "costs and sacrifices" required to bring the aquifer into balance.

"As the dream of large scale water importation has faded, we must now find ways to live within our means," the agreement says. That includes capturing rainfall, then using it to irrigate or putting it back underground; capturing irrigation water for reuse; and even stopping farming on some lands.

"Everybody is worried about this, whether they admit it or not," Reiter said. "And it's really sort of liberating to just quit arguing about if there's a problem and who it's going to damage the most and kind of reach out more broadly."

Now, they have quarterly meetings and a fairly steady supply of funding for projects like a recharge basin at a Watsonville ranch, which allows runoff from the Santa Cruz Mountains to filter back into the ground, and a project to limit the use of sprinklers to plants' rooting phase only.

"I'd say the biggest step was acknowledging there was an issue and acknowledging we're part of the problem, so we have to be part of the solution," Reiter said. "That seemed to liberate a lot of other people to say, 'So are we, and we're worried about it, too.' The dialogue became much more civilized and has led to some positive steps."

 

 

 

| »

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Image CAPTCHA
Copy the characters (respecting upper/lower case) from the image.

To manage site Login