Jul 21, 2009
New Fumigant Rules Could Put Some Growers out of Business

EPA released its newest rules for applying soil fumigant pesticides a couple of months ago, and growers are still trying to figure out what the rules mean for them.

Some things are certain: The new requirements won’t start going into effect until next year, and they’re going to make life more complicated for the strawberry, tomato, potato, carrot, pepper and other growers who inject fumigant pesticides like methyl bromide, chloropicrin, dazomet, metam sodium, metam potassium and iodomethane into their soil. Some of those growers might have to stop raising those crops.

Safety is the impetus behind the new rules, which will “reduce fumigant exposures to bystanders – people who live, work, attend school or spend time near agricultural fields that are fumigated – and increase overall safety of fumigant use by requiring greater planning and compliance,” according to EPA.

Safety is a laudable goal, but practical application of these rules to the field is going to be difficult, said Nate Nourse, president of the North American Strawberry Growers Association and sales director for Nourse Farms, a berry grower in Massachusetts.

The biggest concern for most growers right now, Nourse said, is the buffer zone requirement. In order to protect bystanders from exposure, EPA wants fumigant users to establish zones around the edges of treated fields. The zones will act as buffers, allowing airborne fumigant residues to disperse before reaching bystanders. The size of each buffer zone will depend on several factors, including field size, application rate, equipment and methods used and the use, if any, of emission control measures (such as tarps).

For growers who live in densely populated areas especially, those buffer zones are going to be a “pain in the neck,” Nourse said. Growers might have to fumigate in bits and pieces to avoid breaking the rules. Efficiency will go “way down,” he said.

State officials and grower groups in California and Florida – the two biggest strawberry producers – are still sorting through all the new requirements, but Debby Wechsler, executive secretary of the North Carolina Strawberry Association, has studied the matter – and she’s not encouraged by what she’s learned.

“Strawberry growers in North Carolina are looking at a 40 percent reduction in yields if they can’t fumigate,” Wechsler said. “I think this will drive a lot of small growers out of business.”

Just about every strawberry grower in the Southeast uses fumigants to combat nutsedge, nematodes and other pests. They’d love not fumigating at all – it’s expensive and dangerous and not particularly enjoyable – but they wouldn’t make much of a living without it, she said.

Wechsler conducted a survey last year, after EPA released its first version of the fumigant rules and was seeking public comment. She wanted to find out what effect those rules might have on strawberry growers in her state (and surrounding states). She sent EPA the results.

“The survey made clear how much of a gap there is between current knowledge and practice and what EPA is expecting,” she said.

Some of the growers who took the survey were riled by the EPA rule regarding respirators. The final rule requires handlers to “either stop work or put on respirators if they experience sensory irritation.”

One of the growers who took the survey wrote in response: “Have these regulators ever worked 10 hours a day in 90-degree heat with a respirator on?”

When EPA re-released the fumigant rules this year, they were a bit less restrictive, thanks to information the agency had received in the interim. The buffer zone rules were relaxed to some degree, but farms within one-fourth of a mile (one-eighth of a mile for smaller fields) of schools, day care centers and nursing homes still won’t be able to fumigate – at all.

Many strawberry farms rely on being highly visible to customers. The strawberry patch next to the road – or school – might look wonderful and fit in nicely with buy-local trends, but if the grower can’t fumigate he’s out of luck. He’s also out of luck if his next-door neighbor decides to open a day care facility, Wechsler said.

According to the survey (which covered 76 growers representing 480 acres in North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina and nine other states), most of the respondents still use methyl bromide/chloropicrin as their main fumigant, and most do their own fumigating; roughly a quarter hire others to do the job.

The heavy use of methyl bromide, which is being phased out, could lead to other complications. The industry has been working hard to find replacements for that fumigant, which EPA considers dangerous and harmful to the environment, but the only alternatives are other fumigants – which will soon be subject to more restrictions. It’s like fighting one battle only to get attacked from the flank, she said.

Adjusting to the new rules is going to be a laborious, time-consuming process for growers and handlers – if they can do it at all. Wechsler would like to see them get some financial help from the federal government for their efforts.

EPA will implement most of the new rules next year. The buffer zone requirements will be fully implemented in 2011. For more information, visit www.epa.gov/opp00001/reregistration/soil_fumigants/.

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