Thursday, May 31, 2012
California’s strawberry farmers are about to get the help we need to make our farms both “greener” and safer, with new farming techniques.
State officials recently announced an exciting new effort to help farmers transition away from dangerous, outdated fumigant pesticides. The announcement came soon after the decision by the pesticide manufacturer Arysta to pull cancer-causing methyl iodide. And this is welcome news for farmers like me.
I’m a third generation farmworker, and I now own my own farm. I know what it’s like to be exposed to pesticides in the field, and I know we cannot sustain our food system and environment with chemicals that are so toxic. After working in conventional farm fields for more than 10 years, I joined a training program through the Agriculture & Land-Based Training Association. For three years I learned how to fight diseases and pests organically, in ways that were not only effective, but also safe for my family, consumers and future generations.
For more than 15 years, I’ve built on this training and worked hard to create a successful produce business. Despite the financial and cultural obstacles of being a woman farmer, I achieved my dream of having my own farm, and producing food in a way that is safe for the earth, for the air, and for my children and grandchildren who keep me company in the fields.
WE ONLY HAVE ONE ENVIRONMENT FOR EVERYONE FOR ALL OUR FUTURES. WE HAVE NO ROOM FOR MISTAKES.
I’ve also spent the last several years mentoring other Latino farmers working toward the American dream. Farming is a skill, and we need a wide range of tools to be successful. But for real success, these tools need to be safe – safe for workers in the field, for neighboring communities and for future generations. We only have one environment for everyone for all our futures. We have no room for mistakes.
Over the years, I’ve learned that farming is all about striking a balance in the small ecosystem in each field. Don’t get me wrong – we’ve had our problems with beetles, earworms and aphids. But we’ve managed pests by building healthy soil that supports strong plants, and with powerful tools like crop rotation. If there are pests it’s because there’s a lack of balance, and this balance is certainly not restored with fumigants.
My message to California decision-makers? Fumigants should be phased out completely. These poisonous chemicals which could hurt my children and grandchildren have no place in modern farming. Many are known to cause cancer, while others are linked to respiratory problems and groundwater contamination.
Phasing out these old-school tools means some farmers may need to learn new practices. The first step to transitioning away from fumigants is to educate farmers about the tragic impact that pesticides have people, soil and the air. Next, local politicians need to be supportive of farmers making the transition. And then comes the training – field-based know-how focused on building healthy soil and managing pests without these chemicals that throw the farm ecosystem completely off kilter by killing everything.
Farmers also need programs like the USDA’s transitional farmer program, to help us with transition costs, which can be substantial. In addition to training costs, a field must be certified organic for three years before produce – strawberries or otherwise – can be marketed as organic.
We must all work as a team to lead California on a path forward toward safer farming, and we need to act quickly. As farmers, we take our responsibility seriously as caretakers of food and the environment to provide safe jobs, healthy food, and an environment that will still be clean years from now.
MARIA CATALAN is owner of Catalan Farms, a small strawberry and vegetable grower in Hollister. Dana Perls, a community organizer with Pesticide Watch, translated this article.