Edible San Diego Winter 2011-12 : Page 7

Pest, Response Threaten Be Wise Ranch Many San Diego organic food advocates found an urgent email in their inboxes on Saturday, Oct. 29: Be Wise Ranch, a 200-acre organic farm that sells most of its produce nationally to stores like Whole Foods and about 30% locally via its large CSA program, was under attack due to an insect called the eye gnat. According to the email, if the county took its proposed action, Be Wise Ranch would lose its organic status and, likely, cease to exist. When the County Board of Supervisors’ office opened on Monday, many of Be Wise Ranch’s 2,500 CSA customers and others in San Diego who support organic agriculture called, flooding the phone lines. Within a day, the crisis had passed. But what exactly had happened? The eye gnat issue actually began on a different farm, the 450-acre organic spinach and lettuce operation of Alan Bornt in Jacumba. For years, the eye gnats, which feed on the mucus in human and animal eyes, have been swarming the community. A 2009 report found that 80 million eye gnats were coming from Bornt’s farm. Eye gnats are attracted to freshly tilled soil that is rich in organic matter, and they had found plenty of it on the farm. They would reproduce there and then leave the farm as adults, in search of a human population. Bornt began working with the county to bring the eye gnats under control, at first only using organic pesticides. In March 2011, the county made him sign an agreement that included maintaining a 100-foot buffer of a “trap crop” around the entire perimeter of his farm that would be sprayed weekly with toxic, nonorganic pesticides. Additionally, he must observe a six-week “dry period” in which no crops are watered and no soil is tilled in the middle of the summer, and he must place traps all over his farm to catch the gnats. The entomologist working on the problem, James Bethke, feels that the first priority in dealing with the problem is bringing down the adult population of eye gnats. Bornt says he’s already decreased their population by 95% and has spent tens of thousands of dollars in doing so. Be Wise found out last year that it might be affected by the eye gnat problem as well. “On the farm, you don’t see eye gnats,” farmer Bill Brammer explained. “You don’t see them when you’re walking around.” Be Wise began working with Bethke, who says the farm has been very cooperative in trying to bring the eye gnats under control. (Brammer emphasized that this isn’t a problem unique to his farm— eye gnats are found all over the southern half of the United States.) The urgent situation that arose in late October was a new proposal that would reclassify the eye gnat as a disease vector (which Bethke says it isn’t), allowing the county to take more heavy-handed actions like forced spraying of pesticides (even on organic farms) and fines of up to $1,000 per day. After the outpouring of support in favor of the organic farms, the county backed down, instead proposing a 90-day period in which stakeholders would be consulted, followed by recommendations on how to control the eye gnats. — Jill Richardson winter 2011/12 edible San Diego 7

Farm Bureau

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