Roughly 10 feet separates Berta Garcia’s La Vina backyard from an almond orchard. Credit: Greg Weaver

What's at stake?

Exposure to pesticides has left this predominantly agricultural community with many instances of asthma and other sicknesses. But the local ag commissioner says all the rules are being folllowed.

Beneath a cloudless sky in southwestern Madera County, Berta Garcia stands in a driveway to talk with state officials about pesticides in the almond orchards planted a couple paces from her backyard fence.

While an ice cream truck circles the main strip of the neighborhood and people gather around front yard stereos playing mariachi music, her son is inside the house that Friday afternoon with a bout of inflamed eyes and a headache.

“They sprayed pesticides earlier this week,” Garcia said.

She had come out to tell state officials about the daily routines of industrial agriculture — the fits, starts, sounds and smells of the tree shakers and chemical sprayers — that play out within an earshot of La Viña, her neighborhood on Avenue 9 north of the San Joaquin River.

In 2017, the vineyard behind her house was ripped out and replaced with rows of almonds. The trees got so large the foliage began to press up against Garcia’s fence, which was later destroyed by a tractor on the farm.

The chemical spray from the pump tankers would often miss the leaves and end up in her neighbors’ yards. Garcia said the nut harvest intensifies the noise, dust and grime around her house from sunrise to sunset.

“I finally stop hearing them around 6-7 pm,” she said. “When they’re picking, there’s a lot of dirt and pesticides. It’s hard to navigate.”

The percussion of the tree shakers creates the biggest disturbance. Even in her bedroom, Garcia can’t find a respite from the bustle of the machine’s hydraulic rumble just beyond her fence line.

“You feel it in your bed like an earthquake,” she said.

Garcia’s neighborhood is at the epicenter of one of the most intensive pesticide, crop burning, and fumigation operations in the state of California. For the last three decades, the orchards around La Viña have soaked up more ag chemicals, fumigants and pesticides than nearly any other community in California, according to a Bee/Fresnoland analysis. Of California’s approximately 5,000 townships, La Viña’s has been in the top 10 for pesticide exposure nearly every year since 1990.

The predominantly Latino community is the center of a 36-square-mile stretch of land that is blanketed by roughly 1 million pounds of pesticides and fumigants annually, according to a state pesticide database.

But La Vina’s 300 residents are trying to leverage a new state policy and the federal EPA to chip away at the pesticide drift that swirls from the fields surrounding their community. The group met with state leaders from the California Air Resources Board, the Department of Pesticide Regulation and the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment for two hours on May 6 to discuss how to create funding for community-identified solutions to reduce pesticide exposure.

Nearly every La Vina resident who spoke in the small community center at the meeting mentioned someone they knew who had pancreatic or lung cancer, leukemia or asthma. They told state officials that the health hazards from the prolific amount of pesticides used in the area exacerbated their risk for premature death.

“The almonds are too close to where we live. Give us a reason, because the pesticides fall on our homes,” Maria Herrera said.

“They don’t know that what they are doing in the fields affects all of us,” she said.

As part of a bundle of organizing efforts, the La Viña group is developing a partnership with local land and water agencies to include environmental justice in the state’s agricultural sustainability programs. The group wants to leverage state funds that will finance the state’s plans to repurpose tens of thousands of acres of agricultural land in Madera County in the coming decades to create buffer zones between agricultural fields and rural communities.

With the $50 million California’s Multi-Benefit Land Repurposing Program in its inaugural year, La Viña is making its first crack at such a partnership. The program offers money to local public agencies to retire farmland in order to meet the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, and has a preference for funding projects that provide “meaningful benefits to disadvantaged communities.” At the meeting, the residents called on the state air and pesticide watchdogs to coordinate with the state agency which will approve the Repurposing Program grant in Madera to emphasize La Viña buffer zones.

“We need this pressure on Madera County so change can be made,” a La Viña resident said at the meeting.

Not all counties which apply to the program will receive funds. In April, counties and water districts across the state requested from the Repurposing Program twice the amount than the $50 million that is available this year.

As the state finalizes its budget to utilize a massive $100 billion budget surplus this year, environmental advocates are pressuring the Newsom administration to use a portion of the unprecedented stimulus to meet the demand for this ag land retirement program. An Environmental Defense Fund analysis found the Newsom administration’s planned budget for the program next year was “clearly not enough.”

“The strong interest in the new program also demonstrates that far more funding is needed to support communities through this landscape transition,” the EDF wrote in the analysis.

Group wants data, new regulations

The community groups also want to carve out a $20 million Community Support Fund within the 2022 state budget to fund buffer zones, indoor air filtration and chemical notification systems for pesticide-impacted communities across the state. The La Viña community group strategized with the state agencies to find ways to bolster the fund’s passage as the state finalizes its comprehensive budget in the coming months.

“We’ve also had conversations with members of the Legislature last year, but it hasn’t gotten traction. And so we’re hoping to add your departments as part of the request,” said J Jordan, a policy coordinator at Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.

Minh Pham, DPR’s branch chief for environmental monitoring, said that pledging funds for the program in the final stages of the state budget would be difficult.

Pham stressed that any illness from pesticides, in the meantime, should be reported to the local hospital and the county Ag Commissioner.

“These events need to be documented,” Pham said. “The Ag Commission can be the first responder for anything that happens here.”

However, the organizers of the La Viña meeting point to the Ag Commission as a reason for the meeting in the first place. Madeline Harris, a regional policy manager with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, said the Madera County Agricultural Commission has not offered any new solutions to La Viña’s pesticide concerns besides “business-as-usual.”

“It’s part of the reason we’re having this conversation with state agencies, because, to be honest, we’ve uplifted these needs for the last three to four years to Madera County, and we have gotten no response,” she said.

La Viña residents point to a number of concerning incidents involving carcinogenic compounds near La Viña Elementary School.

In May 2017, 22,000 pounds of Telone II, a hazardous fumigant whose primary ingredient is linked to respiratory problems and cancer, was applied to a plot of land less than a mile away from the elementary school during school hours.

And over spring break this April, 10,000 pounds of the fumigant were applied across the street from the school.

Rusty Lantsberger, Madera County’s agricultural commissioner, says that the cases in question were completely legal. The May 2017 incident was before new regulations about pesticides near schools were established, and the Ag Commission had already taken the legally required precautions this April by making sure the school was closed for 36 hours after the fumigation was applied. A Bee/Fresnoland analysis of the ag commission’s pesticide use reports confirmed Lantsberger’s statements.

“We can’t enforce good ideas,” Lantsberger said. “We can only enforce what the laws are.”

La Vina residents are working to see how far existing regulations go to protect their families from concentrated dosages of hazardous agricultural chemicals. They are awaiting a response from the EPA about a $500,000 grant to forensically test their neighborhood for pesticide residues with names like “Tombstone Helios,” “Crosshair,” and “Spinetoram.” If the EPA grant is rejected, they plan on going to the state government to find the cash and equipment to do the chemical tests.

But even the best information does not change the bottom line of cause and effect, spraying and exposure. Guadalupe Nunez is a mother of four kids who attend La Viña Elementary. She says she taught all of them to stay inside at recess on windy days, for fear of pesticide exposure from the surrounding fields.

“In La Viña, there’s kids that are always sick with asthma and coughing a lot,” she said. “And so growers definitely need to be a lot more careful with what’s being applied in the community, and they need to drastically reduce the amount of pounds of pesticides that are being applied here.”

Gregory Weaver is a freelance journalist based in California’s central San Joaquin Valley. He can be reached at gweav37@gmail.com.

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Gregory Weaver

Gregory Weaver is a staff writer for Fresnoland who covers the environment, air quality, and development.