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Pesticide use on lily farms examined

By Jennifer Henion

Triplicate staff writer

The environmental group trying to stop pesticide use in Smith River is crying foul again and readying itself to start its own organic lily farm in Smith River to show farmers whether or not it can be done.

Calling themselves the Smith River Project, the group claims too many pesticides are used on Smith River area farms and that's endangering the river's salmon population and area birds of prey.

SRP is currently distributing a report showing Del Norte County farmers used 75,000 pounds more pesticides in 2001 than in 2000, based on numbers from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation that the group crunched themselves.

"We're making this available to the public because it's very difficult for a lay person to look at (the department's report) and make sense of it," said Smith River Project director Greg King.

Though King reports that more pounds of chemicals were used in 2001 over 2000, he does not give a theory about why.

King did not check whether more acres of crop were planted, whether it was a wetter year or drier year or whether a change from a more toxic pesticide to a less toxic one necessitated more poundage for effectiveness.

"What does it mean? They haven't quantified anything. There are no parameters of what constitutes the increased use," said Harry Harms, owner of Hastings Bulb Farms of Smith River and Brookings.

Harms did not have solid data at hand either, but said it's possible there were more application days in 2001. He also offered that, because lilies are a rotational crop on a three-year cycle, for some farmers 2001 was a year with more area or crops to spray than 2000.

Harms also asserts that just because more pounds of chemicals were used one year over another, it is not necessarily a bad thing.

"Are we all going to arbitrarily feel that pesticides are bad and so using more is worse? I don't buy into that," Harms said noting that chemicals found to be bad for the environment have been phased out and that any farmer using pesticides is heavily regulated and constantly inspected by state and local regulators.

But King contends that pesticides are building up in the soil, passing into the Smith River and its tributaries and being ingested by frogs and mice and working their way up the food chain.

"It becomes part of the soil ... It can build up over time in species until it reaches a critical mass," said King.

His main concern, he said, is that the chemicals are washing into the river when the first rains come, affecting adult salmon with eggs coming into the river mouth and small fry heading out to sea.

But tests of the Smith River Community Service District wells adjacent to the river and in Rowdy Creek have shown no chemical contamination.

Also, as King says, the Smith River is well documented by fish biologists to be the home of the healthiest fish populations on the West Coast despite heavy pesticide use on farms in the estuary since World War II.

Still, King said he will do what he can to encourage farmers to use organic methods instead of chemical pesticides.

He said he has secured a buyer called Organic Bouquet to purchase any and all organic bulbs grown in Smith River.

So far, farmers like Harms and Don Crockett of Crockett United say they have studied the possibility of organic farming in Smith River for years with no success.

"I've been throwing money at the research station we have here for years to tell me how to grow organic, and they haven't been successful. I don't want to use all of these pesticides. Not because they are bad, but because they are expensive. It's the most expensive part of our business. If I could use less, I would," Harms said.

King said instead of willing the farmers past their reluctance to deal with him in the endeavor, he will show them by example.

King said he is currently in negotiations with an unnamed Smith River landowner to create a test plot for organic lilies.

"It's a major landowner who doesn't currently grow bulbs. We're also going to try and get a grant to get it started," King said.

The Smith River Project carpeted the Smith River community this summer with flyers suggesting lily farmers were contaminating the land, the river and their neighbors with toxic chemicals.

The group launched a campaign to test Smith River area wells to prove that the farmers were contaminating the area's groundwater.

Soon after their tests were conducted, the California Regional Water Control Board also tested upward of 15 wells. Both groups found that no currently used chemicals were found in the groundwater.

Pesticide contamination was found in Smith River area wells in the 1970s, but soon afterward, lily farmers quit using those chemicals and altered application processes.

Trace amounts of that now-banned chemical were found in recent tests of some wells, but the data show contamination levels are decreasing from levels measured years ago.

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