Fields of overkill

Conservation, farmers scorched by food safety concerns

  • "Scorched earth spinach" is how one grower described conditions under the new guidelines for leafy greens. Only the stumps remain of old eucalyptus trees that were cut in a field near Greenfield in the Salinas Valley. SCOTT ANGER

  • Executive director of Central Coast Water Quality Preservation, says hedgerows near organic fields harbor beneficial insects and birds and can reduce water pollution. SCOTT ANGER


SALINAS VALLEY, CALIFORNIA - In California's verdant Salinas Valley, the tangles of trees and shrubs that once bordered the fields of leafy greens are disappearing. Chain-link fences now barricade the Salinas River as it flows through the nation's salad bowl. In early April, a small lake that once sheltered migratory birds and insects beneficial to farmers had been reduced to a bulldozed pit; by the end of the month, it had disappeared completely. Like the vanishing trees and hedgerows, the pond was another victim of food-safety measures gone awry.

After an E. coli outbreak in 2006 was traced to tainted spinach, the leafy greens industry and big corporate buyers like McDonald's and Wal-Mart responded with an array of tough new standards for growing spinach and lettuce. Packaged produce has been the culprit in the majority of outbreaks linked to leafy greens; those who fell sick or died in the 2006 outbreak had eaten bagged spinach from a single processing plant in California owned by Natural Selection Foods. Still, native vegetation and waterways that provide habitat for deer, birds and other wildlife were suddenly seen as health threats by those high up on the corporate food chain.

Pushed by inspectors and buyers, leafy greens growers on California's Central Coast are sterilizing their fields, ripping out wildlife habitat and putting up fences. Often, the farmers' contracts and livelihoods are at stake. "Growers have been told to cut down trees on family farms that have been around for 50 years," says Kirk Schmidt, executive director of Central Coast Water Quality Preservation.

And it's not just farmers and wildlife that are losing out - the excessive measures are changing farms in ways that could actually make our food supply less safe. "Buyers are taking advantage of food safety to get a competitive edge," says Joseph McIntyre, facilitator of the California Roundtable on Agriculture and the Environment. "They're putting pressure on growers toward practices that may not have food safety benefits, as well as (cause) unintended consequences."

The 2006 E. coli outbreak happened just as the federal Food and Drug Administration was working with the agricultural industry to come up with new guidelines for growing and handling leafy greens. The tainted spinach killed three people, sickened over 200 others, and cost spinach growers more than $70 million. FDA advisories over an eight-day period effectively shut down the spinach industry and had a long-term impact on leafy greens sales - and on the way growers manage their farms.

For years, farmers in the Salinas Valley and beyond had worked with state and federal resource agencies to implement ecologically friendly practices. But a spring 2007 survey by the Resource Conservation District of Monterey County showed such practices are changing. Of 181 respondents, who farm a total of 140,000 acres on the Central Coast, 89 percent said that they had adopted at least one measure to keep wildlife out of their fields.

The survey indicated that the lettuce and spinach growers are facing tremendous pressure from auditors and buyers. Nearly one-third of leafy greens growers said auditors encouraged them to remove vegetation, and almost one-half were urged to remove or trap wildlife. In many cases, the growers complied. Growers said they lost points on their audits if deer or frogs were present in the fields, and buyers sometimes rejected their crops altogether - thousands of dollars' worth in some cases. (Deer have been known to carry E. coli, although their role in transmitting disease to humans is insignificant compared to that of cattle.)

One organic produce grower, who prefers to remain anonymous, notes that the industry term for habitat - "harborage" - implies that wildlife is a threat to the farm. "The most unscrupulous retailers are essentially advocating a 'scorched earth' policy for areas near vegetable fields," he says.

At the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), program coordinator Sam Earnshaw has been encouraging Central Coast farmers to plant hedgerows since the late 1990s. Plants like flowering yarrow and lilacs may appear untidy next to orderly rows of lettuce, but they protect the crops from soil erosion and filter out blowing dust. They also house helpful critters, such as wasps that destroy crop-eating caterpillars. Now, however, growers are pulling those hedgerows out.

"Food safety inspectors don't understand that hedgerows support beneficial insects," says Jo Ann Baumgartner, director of the nonprofit group Wild Farm Alliance, which has been using aerial photos and reports on the ground to track the removal of shrubs and trees. "They say, 'Get rid of the weeds.' "

In the Salinas Valley, white PVC pipes used to trap rodents are now common along the edges of fields. Fencing is increasingly used to deter deer, and vegetation along the edges of fields is being removed, creating bare earth buffers.

"It may or may not have logic beyond the legal departments of large buyers," says Schmidt. "Some want a swath of dirt 20, 30, or 40 feet on the edge of fields to keep the mice out. A mouse is not slowed down by 40 feet of dirt."

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