San Diego Valley Center growers are feeling the financial squeeze caused by the Mexican fruit fly infestation discovered in November 2002.
Lisa Schostag, a third-generation farmer and a native Californian, farms land within the quarantine area. "The Mexican fruit fly quarantine made it impossible for me to survive. With the rising costs of water, fertilizer, and labor, the discovery of the Mexican fruit fly was the last straw for me. Basically, it put me out of business."
The quarantine area affects nearly 1000 growers and covers 130 square miles, with a 28-square-mile core area where the fly and its larvae have been identified. The core area is aerially sprayed every 10 to 11 days. Growers in the remainder of the quarantine area can sign a compliance agreement with the California Department of Agriculture. Jay Van Rein, spokesman for the department, said, "They agree to treat their groves with the same materials that we're using, or if there is something else that is approved for their particular crop they can use that. Over a certain prescribed time, that's based on the life cycle of the fly, and once they've completed that series of treatments, and we verify it, they can go ahead and harvest and market their fruit."
This theoretically applies to a farmer like Lisa Schostag. "My own production is too small to put any more money into it and just big enough to see hundreds of pounds of fruit go to waste this year. I had options of treatment, but I just couldn't afford it. There is also a post-harvest treatment, but I am just not big enough to do that. That'll be almost a full year with no income at all."
Schostag has lived in Valley Center for 20 years. "We raised both our kids here on the grove. We grow citrus, everything. Grapefruit, oranges, lemons, limes, two kinds of avocados. We've got boysenberries, loquats, guavas, tangerines. We started out with 50 acres planted and downscaled, due to the price of water, but downscaled so I could maintain a farmer's market table." She planted the acreage to provide a year-round variety of fruit for her farmer's market customers in Carlsbad and Rancho Bernardo.
"That's all I was, just a farmer," says Schostag. "I don't get into the politics of things as far as why the fruit fly came and NAFTA and all that, because I was just a grower and a seller and made a real good life here, but that was the last straw. I am watching all of my year's crops just go to waste. I can't even give it to friends 'cause it cannot leave the area.
"The other thing that kills me is I don't have the fruit fly on my property. I'm just within the quarantine area. I know I don't have the fruit fly on my property because I picked my fruit on a daily basis and ate it on a daily basis.
"The fruit fly is pretty good sized," Schostag explains. "I mean, you'd notice. It's not these little buzzy ones that get on strawberries. It's a big yellow fly." The "Mexfly," as it is called, is larger than a housefly. The female fly lays eggs in the fruit that hatch into larvae, which render the fruit unfit for human consumption.
Schostag continues, "And there are traps all over the place here that the Department of Agriculture has put out. And I don't think they've found any in this area. I think three miles away is the closest."
Van Rein explained the rationale. "The quarantine area itself is 130 square miles. But we've only detected flies on a smaller portion in the middle of that. The way a quarantine area is set is essentially that they'll identify the properties where flies have been found and add a buffer to that zone based on basically how far the flies can get in a lifetime. But the flies really had not been detected outside of that original core area since the beginning. They really have stayed fairly isolated."
Susie Behneman-Pinaire is owner of Lilac Valley Orchards, another family operation. "My son, Paul Behneman, is the manager and runs the whole thing. My other son, Daniel, sells at the farmer's markets up in L.A. My daughter, Julie, and her husband have started their own farm and they call themselves Valley Center Orchards. Their fruit is in the core also."
None of the family has fruit fly on their property. Behneman-Pinaire explained, "By having this core, it's made us unable to sell our fruit, which has no fly in it. So we don't feel like it's really fair. This fruit fly, this Mexican fruit fly does not fly around. I mean, we've been told that. Once it comes to an area, it stays in that area. It doesn't jump around....
"We have traps all over each of our groves. [The California Department of Agriculture] have come into our grove when this first started. They've cut fruit. I mean, they must have taken 200 or 300 pounds of fruit out of each of our groves, cutting and checking the fruit.
"It's really frustrating, and it's frustrating to try and figure out how to generate enough income to actually keep going," says Behneman- Pinaire. "It's been so bad and it's so devastating that we're not really sure how much money we want to put into this to keep it going. We've already had to refinance two groves just to pay our water bills to keep the fruit here growing that we can't sell -- much less paying our mortgages on our property. Within the next two months we're going to be deciding if we can stay in farming."
Difficult decisions notwithstanding, Behneman- Pinaire's circumstances are already compromised. "We're doing half of what we did. We used to have a profitable business where we actually made money. Right now we're just able to pay our workers, but the only way we're able to do that is to refinance some of our groves. How much money does a farmer want to keep refinancing and putting into groves?
"What we're not sure of is how long this is gonna go. We've heard somebody say it might go until next March, and if in fact that is the case, then we probably will be out of business."
No one can say with certainty when the quarantine will be lifted. For now the California Department of Agriculture continues to fly its three planes on the scheduled evenings. Van Rein offered a synopsis of events to date and projected treatment. "The treatments have used new material to quarantine [areas] in California," Van Rein said. "It's a product called Naturalyte. The active ingredient is called spinosad. The Naturalyte is an organically approved treatment.
"Since the first treatment was in the first week of January, we've had nine treatments total. The treatments are done overnight.
"The treatments have been very effective just based on our trapping data," Van Rein explains. "We had captured approximately 260 adult flies in traps in the weeks leading up to the beginning of treatments. We've had 20 since then. We have very strong evidence that they're having the desired effect, but because the infestation was originally so intense, based on the biology of the insect, we expect to still find some more flies, at least for the next few weeks. Even though we're applying treatments, there are probably still developmental stages of the immature flies in the ground. They wouldn't be affected by the treatments until they emerge as adults."
A panel of scientists from the USDA met with the California Department of Agriculture team in Valley Center in mid-April. According to Van Rein, "They did give us a recommendation that we continue with the plan to treat for two life cycles of the fly after the last fly find. We can't set an end date on the treatments until we've stopped finding flies. Each time we find a few we have to reset the calendar."
When the treatments are completed, a second phase will commence. Sterile male flies will be released, ensuring that any remaining female flies will mate with sterile flies, thus eliminating further breeding possibilities. Again, the date is undeterminable.
In the meantime, Behneman-Pinaire said, "It's really hard. It's a day-to-day thing. We're just telling God, 'What do you want us to do?' Probably one of the changes would be to start turning the water off on some of our groves and possibly even selling them. That's what we're trying to decide; is it profitable for us to keep watering this fruit, which in fact we won't be able to sell for who knows how long?
"My son just got through saying, 'Mom, I just looked out at the grove and thought, can I actually turn the water off on this?' He said, 'I would just be devastated to actually have to do that.' "
Schostag is equally unsure. "I don't know what the future holds. My dream is to keep this property as pretty and as natural as possible without selling out to a builder. It's happening all over Valley Center. Farmers can't afford to be farmers, so there are subdivisions going in."
For now Schostag had to find a new job to keep her family afloat. She works at Bell Gardens in Valley Center. "I miss the pride in growing and selling my own outstanding fruit," she says, "but I'm still in the produce business. As to whether I will go back to farming and the markets, I don't know. I'm a little bit brokenhearted and a little bit mad that it all happened, but farming is in my heart, and I don't think that will ever change."