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As sunset nears for methyl bromide, strawberry growers look for new ways to farm

by Chip Carter | January 07, 2010
PLANT CITY, FL -- How important has the multi-purpose fumigant methyl bromide, currently being phased out due to safety concerns, been to strawberry production? Ask Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association.

"Methyl bromide is the crack of our industry. Withdrawal has been very hard," Mr. Campbell said. "It's a miracle chemical. It made us commercially viable. Losing that is going to be expensive and painful."

Unfortunately, according to scientists, while methyl bromide gives strawberry farmers a single-shot kill for weeds, pests and pathogens, it is one of a class of chemicals that pokes holes in the earth's ozone layer. It also presents hazards to humans when handled improperly.

In 1985, scientists first suggested that production and use of methyl bromide be restricted and ultimately eliminated around the world. On Jan. 1, 1989, the Montreal Protocol, since signed and adopted by all 192 member-states of the United Nations, codified the phase-out of methyl bromide and other chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons.

Over the next 10 years, that phase-out was negotiated. Critical-use exemptions were allowed for developing nations and industries -- like strawberry production -- where no suitable replacement for methyl bromide was available.

Over the last 10 years, those critical-use exemptions have shrunk dramatically, and the supply of methyl bromide continues to contract each year.

"Even if we got the allocation for the entire U.S., it wouldn't be enough to do just Florida," Mr. Campbell said. "We understand the Montreal Protocol, but we'd argue with the science. Additionally, there's an issue of competitive fairness where methyl bromide is available to developing countries in unlimited quantities. We have a competitive threat resulting from the withdrawal of methyl bromide in the U.S. That's one of the reasons some of our farmers are in trouble."

Florida and California strawberry growers have learned to conserve their rations of methyl bromide. Some hoarded extra stock when it was available, a move that backfired when prices skyrocketed this year specifically to prevent that practice. Others have found ways, like field barrier films and drip application methods, to get by with much less methyl bromide than needed for traditional application. Eventually -- possibly by the end of 2011 -- growers will have to find ways to do without the chemical altogether.

The appeal of methyl bromide to strawberry growers is readily apparent. A single application sterilizes the soil and provides season-long pest and disease protection. "The beauty of methyl bromide was it was a one-time shot and it covered all the bases," Mr. Campbell said. "They've looked for years for a replacement that's similarly effective and still haven't come up with one."

Other methods of soil preparation have proven much less efficacious. Some strawberry growers are utilizing a three-chemical cocktail that requires multiple applications and, according to Mr. Campbell, "has declining effectiveness over two to three years." Others are experimenting with organic and/or hydroponic growing.

Cindy Jewell is director of marketing for California Giant, which grows berries in Florida and California.

"We're like the rest of the industry. There's a certain amount [of methyl bromide] available, then you've also got alternatives you can rotate with to try to use less methyl, and other compounds that help as well," she said. "Primarily you're just trying to prepare the ground before you plant [to] minimize weeds and pests. It goes back to trying to be a good farmer and making sure you're doing the best for the crop and preserving the land at the same time. Some of our growers use methyl one year, then alternative methods the next, to reduce the amount [of methyl bromide] you're using but also have good yields in the field in between. The challenge that you have in the middle of all that is, some of the alternatives are being challenged [for safety and effectiveness] and are not always available as well. I think consumers sometimes forget that farmers don't apply these compounds just for the heck of it; they only do it because they have to."

"Most of our growers this year did not use methyl bromide," said Frank Lombardi of C&D Fruit & Vegetable Co. in Plant City, FL. Mr. Lombardi said that one grower used drip application of methyl bromide in a barrier film- lined, 60-acre field, but "most of our growers use alternatives."

Gary Wishnatzki of Plant City's Wishnatzki Farms said that his growers had enough methyl bromide to cover their fields this year, but that this doesn't mean they are not preparing for the future.

"We're doing some things with our organic operation that might potentially be something we could use in our conventional operations, even ways to grow without fumigation," Mr. Wishnatzki said. "We're doing some pretty progressive planning and thinking."

SunnyRidge Farm is another company experimenting with hydroponic growing, with a three-acre farm near Plant City. Early results are promising, according to Sal Toscano, who heads SunnyRidge's Florida strawberry program. "We'll find out after this year what the acreage-to-tonnage ratio is, but I'm told it's three to one" over traditional growing, Mr. Toscano said. "We're very enthusiastic about it."

Gary Parke, son of the late Roy Parke, an industry leader who pioneered now- standard practices like lining fields with plastic and using sprinklers to prevent freezing, gave up traditional berry farming for hydroponic growing almost six years ago. That first year, a half-acre of hydroponic plants, grown in neat rows of Styrofoam containers filled with a mixture of vermiculite and perlite and stacked vertically on head-high steel posts, yielded 30 acres worth of field-grown fruit.

Now Mr. Parke's plantation has expanded to an entire acre in Dover, FL, on the outskirts of Plant City. Half the plot is devoted to strawberries, the other to a staggering array of products including carrots, potatoes, corn, green beans, radishes, cucumbers, snow peas, sugar snap peas and several varieties of tomatoes, squashes, greens, herbs, lettuces and spinaches.

Production costs are slashed, pesticides are unneeded and growing seasons are extended. The only employees are Mr. Parke, his wife, Terri, and their children, Amanda, Devon, Jordan and Josh. Most of the trade is U-pick -- more than 1,000 shoppers show up most weekends -- but Mr. Parke believes his approach to farming could work on a much larger scale.

"I don't know why more people aren't growing this way," he said. "It takes time to change minds. You're going to believe what you believe, and I'm going to believe what I believe."

Said Mr. Campbell, "Farmers are very resilient. They find ways to make it work. Losing methyl bromide does not mean utter devastation to the strawberry industry. But it's well above the mid-point between pain-in-the- a** and total destruction."

(For more on the Florida strawberry deal, see the Jan. 11, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)