This story was originally published by NRDC's onEarth magazine.
Along California’s rugged coastal Highway 1, just north of Santa Cruz, a yellow pickup truck and tidy rows of strawberries mark the entrance to the Swanton Berry Farm. Inside the cheerful farm stand, decorated with vintage photos and United Farm Worker flags, locals gather at blue picnic tables, sipping coffee, eating strawberry shortcake, and chatting with owner Jim Cochran.
The air is scented with the first berries of the season. They’re fresh and sweet, intensely red, fragrant, and firm—not pumped up with nitrogen like most commercial strawberries. Cochran, 63, a silver-haired man with an easy manner and quiet intelligence, takes evident pride in watching a visitor savor one. He was California’s first organic strawberry grower, harvesting his initial crop more than 30 years ago.
"From the start, everyone said it was impossible to grow a commercial crop of strawberries without chemicals," Cochran says. But over the years, he has proven them wrong, showing the $2.6 billion California strawberry industry—which accounts for 88 percent of U.S. strawberry production and 20 percent worldwide—that it's economically viable to grow the fruit on a large scale without using toxic pesticides.
A toxic business
Strawberries are finicky. They’re far more expensive to grow per acre than most crops—about six times what broccoli costs, for example—and they’re prone to soil diseases, mold, and other maladies. That’s why the vast majority of California’s strawberry farmers rely on, and defend their use of, fumigants—gaseous pesticides injected directly into the soil, which is then covered with tarps in a nuke-it-all approach to killing pests.
Unlike other pesticides, which are sprayed directly onto the fruit, fumigants leave no residue. But they are nonetheless extremely hazardous to the environment and to the health of those who come into contact with them. Cochran, who initially depended on chemicals to grow his strawberries, remembers being accidentally dosed by a powerful fumigant called methyl bromide—just like most of the workers who lay and pull up tarps that enclose the gas in the soil. It left him feeling sick and shaky, with temporary respiratory problems. The symptoms faded after about a month, he says, and he never went to the doctor or reported them to the health authorities—it was just considered a hazard of working in the fields.
Methyl bromide is known to deplete the ozone layer and, as per the 1989 Montreal Protocol and an amendment to the 1998 Clean Air Act, was supposed to have been phased out by 2005. It has survived with "critical use" extensions from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—based on industry claims that there is no feasible alternative. And while the industry highlights that methyl bromide use has declined 50 percent in California since the Montreal Protocol, growers in the state used 3.8 million pounds of it on 30,000 acres in 2012 (the most recent year for which figures from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation are available). The phase-out year is now set for 2017.
In an attempt to find a substitute for methyl bromide, California’s strawberry growers have turned to a range of other dangerous pesticides. Methyl iodide—another highly toxic fumigant that can cause neurological damage, fetal toxicity, thyroid poisoning, and a host of cancers—was the focus of much concern among environmentalists and health experts when outgoing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger approved it in 2010. Thankfully, very few farmers ever used methyl iodide. The Department of Pesticide Regulation issued very permits to only six farms—and one strawberry grower—before its manufacturer suspended sales in United States in 2012.
“We got methyl iodide out the picture, which is really important, but we haven’t yet seen a shift in strawberry production toward more sustainable cultivation practices,” explains Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, an NRDC scientist based in San Francisco. Farmers are still addicted to the fumigant model, which puts workers and communities at great risk. “There’s the myth that agriculture is really far removed from people," she says. "That’s definitely not the case here in California. We have a lot of industrial, high-intensity agriculture using a lot of toxic pesticides in very close proximity to where people live and kids go to school.”
Pushing for a better model
Back in 2009, Cochran testified before a committee of the California State Assembly that it’s perfectly possible to produce strawberries without fumigants and make a profit. His big flats of beautiful berries—and healthy balance sheet—are proof.
Cochran has little sympathy for growers cowed by the transition process. “It’s much easier to grow strawberries without chemicals than the industry would lead you to believe," he says, adding that there are “plenty of competent farmers” demonstrating as much. Meanwhile, farmers have known for 25 years that methyl bromide would need to be phased out and are just now playing catch-up. “They’re 15 years behind where they should be," he says, "and it’s their own damn fault.”
Many growers have been deterred by the nuanced methods Cochran developed, tested, and perfected to ensure bountiful harvests. He tried various methods of increasing yields, experimenting with different composts and planting methods, and using organic fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides. He discovered that rotating broccoli and cauliflower with strawberry crops improved the health of the soil, and that planting strawberries in single rows, instead of the usual multiples, allowed more air to circulate, thus decreasing mold.
Cochran also began working with researchers at the University of California at Santa Cruz to perform randomized studies of his organic and fumigated crops. In 1989 they published a study showing that growing strawberries organically was economically viable using the techniques he had developed, since the premium for organic berries covered most of the increased costs of farming. The study piqued other farmers’ interest.
"They saw it’s possible to grow organic strawberries," he says. "It’s not that it’s a hugely amazing technical advance, it’s just that somebody had to go out and do something differently and not get killed financially." In 2002 the EPA gave Cochran the Stratospheric Ozone Protection Award for his techniques, and nine years later, NRDC honored him with a Growing Green Award.
More recently, new research out of U.C. Santa Cruz has found two alternative methods (solarization and anaerobic disinfestation) that successfully reduce pests in strawberry fields without the use of fumigants—and also without having to rotate crops or leave the land fallow. Although they're gaining support in California, as Rotkin-Ellman notes, both methods are highly customized and location-specific, which, like organic practices, inhibits widespread adoption.
Cochran acknowledges that it will probably take a generational shift for strawberry farmers to fully come around to organics. Most farmers his age, he says, are too comfortable with their methods and too old to want to change. But he’s optimistic that their children will make the switch and that more and more consumers will understand the risks posed by conventional berries.
Cochran looks out across his fields, where birds are pecking at fruit, and scowls at a gopher popping his head up too close to his precious crop. It’s true that his strawberries take a lot more work and cost to produce, and the bottom line is that organic farmers like Cochran can only survive—and other conventional farmers will only risk a transition—if consumers are willing to pay an extra dollar a basket for their product. But biting into one of Cochran's strawberries, the payoff isn't the clean air in the fields, or the lessened impact on the ozone layer and people's health. The payoff is that they just taste better.