Conventional Farmers Learn to Reduce Dangerous Chemicals
Workers prepare a Salinas area field for planting. As methods have grown more sophisticated, this process has involved less pesticide application. Photo : Danielle Venton
January 6 | Danielle Venton The fields of Henry Hibino Farms are empty. Neat rows of raised dirt stretch
along the fields, ready for the next planting.
Kent Hibino: this is more of clay loam, it’s got a higher organic matter, as
you get to the river it’s a sandy loam.
Kent Hibino looks out on his fields from his Chevy truck. They’re bare now,
but a few weeks ago they held lettuce, romaine, celery, broccoli and
cauliflower. Kent is a third generation farmer in the Salinas Valley,
managing about 1,000 acres. And while these fields grow many of the same
crops Kent knew as a child, he’s seen some big changes since then.
Modern farming, he says, uses new techniques that let farmers apply fewer
chemicals to their land. Take, for example, the soil tests they do before a
planting. Kent sends dirt samples from each field to a lab. The lab tests for
nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and a host of other elements. The results
inform him exactly what to apply.
Hibino: so we’ll take a hard look at that before pre-plant and sometimes we
don’t even pre-plant because we feel everything is there, so that’s definitely
a change from my dad’s time where they were just on program, now we look
at everything field by field, what does that field need to survive.
Kent sees a slow, steady movement among farmers. Acre for acre, they’re
having less of an environmental impact now than they did 10 years ago.
Regulations are strict and pesticides and fertilizers have become expensive.
Maximizing their efficiency is all a matter of staying competitive.
According to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, this trend is
real, and dramatic. Between 1998 and 2009 the total pounds used of the
broad-based, more highly-regulated and generally more toxic pesticides —
things like organophosphates, for example, declined 66 percent.
Growers now use licensed pest control officers to issue spray orders. They’ll
only recommend a spray if pests are present above certain thresholds. Many
farmers now use drip irrigation as well. This waters the plants at the roots,
and reduces the chance of mildew. Using drip irrigation, by some estimates,
allows farmers to cut fungicide use by half, and their pesticide use by a
Hibino: when you’re using drip irrigation, your spray bills will be a lot less
when you use drip irrigation, and and you can fertilize through them, not
using creating a mildewy microclimate overhead.
Farmers are also fertilizing through the drip systems. By targeting the
application they can apply less overall. And farmers switch plantings to put
organic matter back in the soil, and reduce the chance their crops will catch a
April Mackie: that’s one reason we rotate crops, if you grow lettuce,
that’s why we rotate with strawberries, reduce the number of bacteria and
viruses in the soil
April Mackie is the Food Safety Manager for Martin Jefferson and Sons a
large, family-run operation in Castroville. Spraying costs a couple of
hundred dollars per acre so, April says, they’d rather not do it all.
Mackie: we don’t spray just to spray, we have a guy walking the fields if he
sees a certain amount an area then he’ll know he needs to apply, it’s so
expensive, they try not to spray if they can get away with it, that’ll eat you
In this way, simply watching the bottom line is helping farmers have a
smaller footprint. For KUSP, I’m Danielle Venton.