Organic foods are about 2 percent of world food sales but are growing at 20 percent annually. They are produced without use of synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, solvents, or additives. Although they may cost at least 40 percent more than nonorganic foods, they are loved by environment-friendly consumers, who claim, among many things, that these foods mitigate the greenhouse effect and are healthier.

But in San Diego County, organic foods face a tiny bit of a roadblock: the eye gnat, a shiny, nonbiting black fly only 1/16 of an inch in size. These pesky gnats are found in the Southwest, particular California and Arizona. They swarm in folks’ eyes and noses — more noisome, often, than the proverbial skunk at the garden party.

Indeed, residents in southern Escondido have claimed in recent years that they have been driven indoors by these vexatious mini-flies. Golfers at the Vineyard course have bitched, too.

Early this year, more than 300 southern Escondido residents crowded into an elementary school to hear the County’s plan to abate the problem. Dr. Lawrence Michel, who lives in the area, stated at that time that beginning five years earlier, the level of eye gnats had begun escalating. Particularly in hot summer months, “We couldn’t be out in our yards without getting a face full of eye gnats. Outdoor activities ceased — no barbecues, no outdoor parties.”

Life cycle of an eye gnat

Life cycle of an eye gnat

After some study, a large part of the problem was traced to an organic vegetable farm, Be Wise Ranch, on San Pasqual Road. Because organic farms don’t use pesticides, the gnats can breed. The County made several studies, as did Bill Brammer, who owns the ranch.

Brammer set about doing something. “The complaints about eye gnats aren’t false but are exaggerated,” he says. “I put 2000 traps on my property and 45 or 50 traps offsite,” such as in neighbors’ yards. He has set up 13,000 feet of silt fence to prevent gnat migration. “Researchers found a major cause of eye gnats was the way we grew tomatoes. We changed that by growing them on plastic. With the plant going through the plastic, there is no way for insects to reproduce.”

He says he has eliminated 98 percent of the eye gnat problem. And there is no doubt there has been dramatic improvement. The gnat nuisance “has definitely improved, although [gnats] have not completely gone away,” says Dominic Malcangio, event manager at the Vineyard.

Southern Escondido eye gnat complaints to the County have dropped sharply. Last year, for the three weeks in late June to early July, there were 80 complaints. For the similar period this year, there were only 2.

“There has been a noticeable improvement in eye gnat activity,” says Dr. Michel, who had complained so bitterly in earlier years.

Despite the improvement, the County board of supervisors intends to vote next month on a plan to crack down on Be Wise and possibly on other organic farms, which account for 16 percent of fruit and vegetable crop farmland in the county.

The ordinance would give the Department of Environmental Health latitude to tackle eye gnat nuisances when citizens complain. Farmers would have to follow a progressive strategy to eliminate the problem. As a last resort, the department could force the farmer to use pesticides on crops or fields. Then the farm would no longer produce organic foods.

Brammer says the ordinance’s requirements could cost him $500,000 a year, and he would lose $2500 for every acre he farms. “That would put me out of business,” he says. Now he is spending $100,000 a year controlling eye gnats. “I couldn’t survive if I could not be organic,” he says. He sells his produce to retailers such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Jimbo’s, and the Ocean Beach People’s Organic Food Co-op.

“The County is trying to drive organic farming out,” says Brammer, noting that under the ordinance, the County could respond to any citizen complaints against a grower. He hired Oakland-based Krout & Associates, a sustainability consulting firm, which reported, “Implementation of the proposed project and corresponding measure to apply pesticides has the potential to eliminate all organic farming in San Diego County.”

Although Dr. Michel has seen improvement, he says, “It is critical that the ordinance be passed. If things continue as they are, I think most, if not all, of the residents would be satisfied.” But that depends on Be Wise not dropping the ball. “Without the ordinance there is no penalty for not doing these things, and the eye gnat problem will come back. The ordinance should allow the County to inspect the farm at any time to verify compliance.”

Brammer “needs to know there is a stiff penalty if he fails to comply with abatement procedure,” says Michel. “For so long, Brammer denied being the source of the problem, and the only reason he started mitigating was when the County started talking about an ordinance. Otherwise, he wasn’t going to do anything.” Brammer says he wasn’t sure he was contributing to the problem until last year.

Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, objects to the most stringent part of the County’s plan. If the ordinance passes, “the farmer moves to mechanical measures to knock down the eye gnat population; should the problem continue, then the County can mandate use of pesticides. Farms would no longer be organic. We don’t buy into that last step.”

While this controversy raged in southern Escondido, citizens of Jacumba were also assaulted by eye gnats bred at an organic vegetable farm.

The farm was shut down (for nongnat reasons), but “the County continued to receive some eye gnat complaints after the farm closed,” says Michael Drake of the County’s Land Use and Environment Group. He concedes that San Diegans will always be bugged by some eye gnats, no matter how many measures are taken against farmers. ■

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Comments

dagobarbz Aug. 8, 2012 @ 9:20 a.m.

I don't think the county is trying to get rid of organic farms. I think the problem stems from the farms themselves, the fact that these pests come from organic farms is the reason these farms are targeted.

There are some great mosquito traps that use heat and CO2 to attract and eliminate those pests effectively.

If we know what attracts the gnats (moisture, CO2, heat) it seems to me using that against the little buggers could result in effective traps.

This grower who is complaining that the county wants to shut him down is ignoring the fact that his business is causing neighbors extreme discomfort and annoyance. They can't even use their own backyards, for petes sake! And it's all because of Mister Natural's bug farm.

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Don Bauder Aug. 8, 2012 @ 1:23 p.m.

There is agreement from both sides, the farm and the south Escondido residents, that the gnat problem has been greatly relieved. The owner's assertion that 98% of the problem has been eliminated may well be true. While his is the only county organic vegetable farm at risk now, if the proposed measure is passed, any organic vegetable farm could suffer as a result of a few complaints. Best, Don Bauder

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prattleonboyo Aug. 8, 2012 @ 4:44 p.m.

So the resolution according to the county of San Diego is to force organic farmers to use pesticides for a little annoying bug problem? LMAO. Escondido residents complaining about this need to take a trip back east to Floriduh so they can experience what a real flying insect problem looks and feels like.

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Don Bauder Aug. 8, 2012 @ 5:06 p.m.

Not to mention the alligators that prowl the golf courses and reside in the sewers. Or the squatters that reside in the empty homes that sell -- if they sell at all -- for 30% of their one-time price. Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder Aug. 8, 2012 @ 9:06 p.m.

Yes, lovers of organic food cite that as an advantage. Best, Don Bauder

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Javajoe25 Aug. 9, 2012 @ 10:25 a.m.

Well, it depends on what you consider "genetic engineering." Everything on the organic food table is the result of genetic engineering. It's just that years ago it was done by grafting and cross-pollination techniques and not at a lab. The goal was the same; to improve the product, make it more resistant to rot, bugs, whatever. If you've ever come across an apple tree in an abandoned orchard, you can see what happens without some human intervention. The fruit is virtually inedible. Organic processes do not proceed with the idea of making food more palatable or healthy for human beings.

Makes me laugh when I hear the foodies say "they ought to leave the food alone." Does anyone really think that broccoli and lettuce and carrots all came from nature just the way they are now? I'm not in favor of our food getting dosed with chemicals, but if scientists can tweak the dna of a tomato to make it more frost resistant, I say "go for it."

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Don Bauder Aug. 9, 2012 @ 12:04 p.m.

Sounds like we need a definition: what is genetically engineered and what isn't? (Monsanto stockholders need not submit information.) Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder Aug. 11, 2012 @ 7:19 a.m.

Don't laugh. I can remember when Monsanto was just another chemical company. Shareholders have done well. Best, Don Bauder

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Twister Aug. 10, 2012 @ 10:08 p.m.

"San Diegans will always be bugged by some eye gnats, no matter how many measures are taken against farmers."

This is a major point. But entomologists need to study the natural history of these gnat populations to determine just how they reproduce and what predators feed on them. Swallow habitats?

Also, ALL of the locations where the gnats feed and reproduce should be checked, not just organic farms but all farms, gardens, and other habitats.

Different ways of storing and applying organic fertilizers might figure into a comprehensive approach to MINIMIZING the problem. People rarely want to admit their part in the problem, and gardeners of all kinds could be contributing to the problem.

Shifting to certain kinds of "chemical" fertilizers might also be worth considering, especially if the "organic" fertilizer happens to contain hormones, drugs, and other non-organic constituents of animal feed. The most important consideration is keeping poisons out of all foods.

I could go on and on . . .

"San Diegans will always be bugged by some eye gnats, no matter how many measures are taken against farmers."

What is needed is more fact and less opinion.

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Don Bauder Aug. 11, 2012 @ 7:27 a.m.

You raise good points. Entomologists have plenty of things to study -- including problems that cause grave illnesses and death -- but they could look more into eye gnats. I am impressed, though, how the county zeroed in on the south Escondido problem and the grower made moves to ameliorate it. But he is not convinced that his farm is the entire problem, and he could well be right. No matter what it does, humanity is not going to rid itself of insects. Nor should it. Best, Don Bauder

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Twister Aug. 11, 2012 @ 8:31 a.m.

I once (long, long ago) had a doctor tell me that the healthiest people do the most complaining--they expect to be always in perfect health. San Diego is almost "perfect" in terms of environment, and it's ironically laughable that eye gnats would be such a big issue and the issue of poisons used to create the illusion of perfection (to solve an immediate problem NOW, expeditiously) is a reflection of the fundamentally infantile nature of our culture and personality. We are willing to trade off a small irritant without the slightest regard to the down-the-road consequences that can cause extreme misery and death. I have lived in insect-ridden Hells, and, well, Flit (DDT) them was our attitude.

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Don Bauder Aug. 11, 2012 @ 1:11 p.m.

I believe it's Wisonsin that considers the horse fly its state bird. Best, Don Bauder

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Visduh Aug. 11, 2012 @ 8:37 a.m.

One thing that jumps out in any discussion of organic farming is the industrial nature of many of these farms. Dozens or even hundreds of acres all growing the same thing at the same time, and the precepts of organic farming, don't exactly go together. An early proponent of what is now called organic gardening was the Rodale Press which published (and may still publish, for all I know) the magazine "Organic Gardening." It had as much a political message as a technical one, but one of the things it was intended to do was teach and preach self-sufficiency. If you had a garden patch, went the theory, and you didn't have to spend money on artificial fertilizers and pesticides, you could go far toward keeping yourself fed with just some work, but no outlay of money.

So, my notion of organic food is something you raise yourself, in small quantities, and consume within walking distance of the spot it was grown. These farms and their gnat problems are reflective of well-heeled folks wanting "healthy" food (the term is "healthful") without getting their hands dirty. Label some vegetable "organic" and the price can be double that of the non-organic one, and one is otherwise indistinguishable from the other.

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Don Bauder Aug. 11, 2012 @ 1:14 p.m.

You make a point, but many consumers who have no access to a garden or are too old to keep their own plot are willing to pay extra for organic foods. Best, Don Bauder

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Twister Aug. 11, 2012 @ 2:51 p.m.

When we bought our first house in 1974, our tomatoes were white with white flies. I sprayed. The white flies got worse and additional pests moved in. I stopped spraying. After a year or two, the white flies all but disappeared, our place was loaded with birds (bush tits swarmed all over our citrus, so the scale insects disappeared), and all kinds of predator arthropods started showing up. I let the weeds grow in with the food plants giving gophers and ground squirrels something else to eat and making habitat for insect predators. The more diverse your back-yard ecosystem the lower the boom/bust fluctuations in all populations. Owls and hawks feed on the rodents.

Relax. It works. Plenty for you, plenty for them.

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Don Bauder Aug. 11, 2012 @ 4:41 p.m.

Rabbits are food for various predators. Snakes eat rodents. So do owls and hawks, as you point out. Certain birds feed on insects. It's a pretty balanced arrangement. Best, Don Bauder

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Visduh Aug. 11, 2012 @ 7:53 p.m.

THAT'S what organic gardening is all about. It's not something that agribusiness can ever adopt. Factory farming using those organic precepts sounds great, but the other leg of the stool, personal involvement, is what's missing.

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Don Bauder Aug. 11, 2012 @ 10:57 p.m.

Organic farming can help bring the individual farm make at least a modest comeback. I miss seeing all those barns when driving through the country. Best, Don Bauder

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Visduh Aug. 14, 2012 @ 4:13 p.m.

If that were to happen, it would be a wonderful thing. Absolutely Jeffersonian in concept, the nation would once again be one of yeoman farmers.

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Don Bauder Aug. 14, 2012 @ 9:20 p.m.

Farming is now big business. Remember those Burma Shave signs? Best, Don Bauder

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Duhbya Aug. 15, 2012 @ 9:45 a.m.

They were often a welcome sight when trapped in the back seat on long trips.

None

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Twister Aug. 11, 2012 @ 11:25 p.m.

Actually, there is a lot of room for improvement in how we saps handle the nutrition/energy cycle. Had we managed the great herds that included bison in the 19th century, we would have plenty of healthy protein instead of empty calories from wheat surrounding South American beef (where similar ecological travesties have been committed), and it would all have been comparatively free and non-toxic--you know, SUSTAINABLE. First came laziness, then came burdensome work, when all we had to do is to stay in Eden.

For example if Bee Wise wuz wiser, the would worry less about weeds and grow mixed crops rather than continuously cultivated row crops. Hedgerows of mixed fruit and nut trees and bushes would provide habitat for the mix of species that would do most of the work, without much of the drudgery and expense of maximizing yield.

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Don Bauder Aug. 12, 2012 @ 9:11 a.m.

There is no question that cultivating a single crop in an area depletes the soil. In the very long term scheme of things, crop rotation is a recent development. Best, Don Bauder

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Twister Aug. 12, 2012 @ 9:53 p.m.

Yes, but managing soil depletion is much more complex than crop rotation, which is long on fraud and short on substance. I am talking about mixing crops, minimizing cultivation, and mimicking other ecosystem processes as a means toward limiting exploitation and much of the resource inputs, including work and money. This is all counterintuitive, of course, but wild and free vegetation (actually ecosystems, which go far beyond vegetation) systems are far more efficient and productive than cultivated ones. Cultivation (from the Latin cultus, the root of culture (ain't irony grand?), destroys ecosystems (which have limits, but require zero external inputs), and replaces them with highly dependent "systems" that only provide the illusion of increased productivity due to things like fertilizer and water taken from other systems in a grand scheme of robbing Peter to pay Paul and never having any intention of paying Paul back.

Cultivation kills organisms which produce fertilizers (so to speak) and/or convert unavailable nutrients to available ones. By minimizing cultivation, the benefits of some ecosystem functions can be retained and used to produce high-quality food at lower cost and investment without hurting profit margins. This is what needs to be developed.

Doesn't SDSU have an ecology department anymore?

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Don Bauder Aug. 13, 2012 @ 9:59 a.m.

SDSU has no ecology department. Ecology is a program area within the biology department. Best, Don Bauder

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Twister Aug. 13, 2012 @ 4:57 p.m.

How can they have a "program" in ecology without botany?

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Don Bauder Aug. 13, 2012 @ 5:46 p.m.

A lot of scholars ask how SDSU can have an ecology program area and not teach basic botany. Best, Don Bauder

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Visduh Aug. 14, 2012 @ 4:16 p.m.

A lot of scholars ask how SDSU can do many of the things it clams to do. In that, SDSU has plenty of company, not only in the CSU system, but also the rest of US academia.

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Don Bauder Aug. 14, 2012 @ 9:23 p.m.

Honest inquiry has been replaced by PR hype. Best, Don Bauder

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Twister Aug. 14, 2012 @ 2:04 p.m.

I had to take botany/ecology as electives because the major my high school adviser told me to take, landscape architecture, did not require it. I found out that landscape architecture was bullshit in more ways than one through the botany/ecology work, and it changed my life. Of course, I lucked out and got a professor by which I judged all others thereafter. None has surpassed him.

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Don Bauder Aug. 14, 2012 @ 9:25 p.m.

But a landscape architecture degree can get one a job. You go into botany/ecology for the love of inquiry. Best, Don Bauder

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Twister Aug. 14, 2012 @ 10:46 p.m.

A job is the bane of the thinking person. I had plenty of 'em; I know.

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Don Bauder Aug. 15, 2012 @ 3:31 p.m.

You no doubt know of the jester who was always making puns. The exasperated king sentenced him to death by hanging. But the townsfolk begged the king to give him another chance. The jester, getting a reprieve, cracked, "No noose is good noose." So they hanged him. Remember, too, what happened to Richard Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel, the prankster. He got the noose, too. Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder Aug. 15, 2012 @ 7:19 p.m.

Get thee to a snortin' house! Er, sportin' house! Best, Don Bauder

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