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Organic Flowers Save the Earth:
Fallout from the Lilies California Growers Supply America for Easter as Neighbors Fear Pesticides


Jane Kay, Chronicle Environment Writer
San Francisco Chronicle


April 18, 2003, Smith River, Del Norte County -- There's a sense of pride in this town of 2,025 as Easter Sunday egg hunts, church services and ham dinners draw near. It's a sign that the hometown hero -- the glossy white, delicately fragrant lily -- is gracing millions of homes across America.

The coastal region straddling the California-Oregon border, including Smith River, holds the title of Easter Lily Capital of the World. For more than half a century, local growers have supplied most of the potted flowering Easter lilies to the rest of the United States.

But this Easter season, there's a dark side to these magnificent symbols of rebirth.

Townspeople are trading stories of newly discovered tainted well water, incidences of sloppy pesticide spraying and a growing concern over the health of California's wild Smith River, the last major undammed, undiverted river in the state.

While pesticide controversies are commonplace in other parts of the state, they are virtually unknown in largely conservative Del Norte County (population 28,000).

Most of the 10 growers that produce some 12 million bulbs for greenhouses -- the Westbrooks, the Hastings, the Stanhursts, the Itzens, among them -- are family businesses. Some trace roots back to the 1800s, some to World War II, when U.S. growers began to make up for Japanese production lost after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The families are part of community life as well as an economic mainstay for the region, producing a $6.6 million annual crop, the only major field crop left in Del Norte.

"You don't want the lily bulb growers to lose their living," said Dorlas Wilson, a retired school bus driver who moved to Smith River more than 40 years ago. "We've already lost our logging, our fishing. All we have is Pelican Bay State Prison. You can't live on beauty."

But Wilson learned in June that her well and those of her son and daughter, who own houses nearby, are contaminated with a carcinogenic insecticide once widely used by the lily growers.

She found out only because environmental groups -- including the Smith River Project, the Trees Foundation and the Humboldt Watershed Council -- ran an ad in the local newspaper for free testing. Now Wilson is buying bottled water for her grandchildren, and she worries about all the people who might not know of contaminated wells.

ON-AND-OFF TESTING

In the 1980s, the insecticide -- 1,2 dichloropropane -- was found in about 80 percent of 45 wells in the lily-growing belt. In 1983, the state suspended both 1,2-DCP and aldicarb, another pesticide found in the wells. But since then, testing by the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board has been rare.

Testing began again in 2001 and 2002, after repeated requests from the environmental groups. The persistent 1,2-DCP was found in 11 wells.

Tuch Vath, engineering geologist at the regional water board, said he would like to do more testing, and not just of well water. "The Smith is one of the most -- if not the most -- pristine rivers in the state. The simple answer is budget."

But no agency is monitoring runoff from the lilies into wells, the Smith River or its broad, shallow estuary, a nursery for prized fish and thousands of aquatic organisms that feed wildlife.

Famous for its special beauty and trophy-size salmon and steelhead, the Smith is one of the largest rivers in the federal wild and scenic river system.

People ride its white waters and camp among giant redwoods along its banks. Bald eagles and spotted owls feed in the watershed, and 38,000 rare migratory Aleutian geese gather on the river plain, among the lily fields, before returning each spring to Alaska.

What makes the region right for redwoods also makes it good for lily bulbs, growers say. The Smith River estuary provides a mild climate and rich alluvial soils. But the 75-inch average rainfall also brings pest problems -- and hence, according to growers, the need for pesticides.

The lily bulbs are cultivated on 800 acres between the Smith River and Chetco River watersheds, hugging either side of Highway 101 along the coast for about 15 miles.

The bulbs, native to the southern islands of Japan, are rotated and culled for three years until they reach commercial size. During that time, they're vulnerable to a host of pests, including root-eating nematodes, or worms, and fungi.

POTENT CHEMICALS

Altogether, on the California side of the lily-bulb belt, growers used about 200,000 pounds of 50 chemicals in 2001, according to state reports. Many are highly toxic, including chloropicrin and carbofuran, which kills raptors and threatens groundwater.

Several pesticides -- the carcinogenic chlorothalonil and disulfoton and pentachloronitrobenzene -- pose threats to endangered coho and Chinook salmon and steelhead, according to scientists with the Center for Ethics and Toxics, a nonprofit in Gualala (Mendocino County) founded by pesticide expert Marc Lappe.

The center has turned over its study for review by the endangered species protection program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

SORE THROAT, BLOODY NOSE

Smith River resident Jack France, a truck driver whose home is next to lily fields, worries about uncontrolled pesticides. "I'm not an environmentalist," he said, "but I know the dangers of pesticides to livestock and runoff to the salmon."

France photographed a cloud of pesticides wafting into his yard and across the street last year. His children got nosebleeds and sore throats. He dismantled his outdoor pool and sent the children to a school out of the neighborhood.

"I don't want them to stop growing lilies. But if they're going to work in this area, they need to be responsible," France said.

The growers are doing a good job of following regulations, said Glenn Anderson, the county agricultural commissioner in Crescent City, who has regulatory authority over pesticide use.

"I've been here for 27 years come June, and the last 10 or 11 as commissioner. We get pretty good compliance," Anderson said. "There's always pressure to reduce pesticides and use the less toxic ones. But when you need it, you've got to use it."

GROWERS NEED PESTICIDES

At a handsome, two-story white frame house trimmed with green shutters, John Westbrook, the family patriarch, and his wife, Carolyn Spencer Westbrook, say they would like to curtail chemicals.

"John and I have talked about other ways to grow lily bulbs for years," Carolyn Westbrook said. But they just haven't been able to solve the pest problems, she said.

They feel the pressure from the environmental groups is putting their livelihood and land at risk.

Their son, Matt Westbrook, a recent graduate of California State University at Chico who wants to step into the business with his brother, says, "I don't want to see chemicals as much as the next person. I want to fish and hunt."

He believes pesticides aren't causing any problems.

The growers have tried tricks over the years to kill nematodes and fungus -- sowing cracked crab shells into soil to release a natural insecticide, covering the ground with plastic and trying to produce hybrids with traits that resist pests, plant breeder Lee Riddle says.

Riddle says a tulip grower in the Netherlands who sells to a Marin County marketer, Organic Bouquet, lists woes on the Web site that would discourage anyone from trying to go organic.

But Organic Bouquet's founder, Gerald Prolman, is optimistic. His former company, Made in Nature, sold organic bananas, mangoes, peppers, eggplants, tomatoes and other vegetables at Safeway, Kroger and other chains.

"It's been done with every crop, so there's no reason it can't be done with lily bulbs," he said. "That's not to say it's easy. It takes quite a commitment to look at new and some old-fashioned ways of farming. Not to make any effort at all is unacceptable."



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