Farmers Continue to Grapple with Medfly Quarantine

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(Sacramento, CA)
Wednesday, November 14, 2007

At least once a week, organic farmer Nigel Walker tours his 65-acres that he jokingly calls his garden. The native Englishman owns “Eat Well Farm” and operates it with a small crew.  Each week they deliver fresh fruit and vegetables to customers.  Despite the long hours of farming, Walker is energetic—he’s tough to keep up with as he strides through rows of lettuce and cabbage.  He stops to check for aphids. 

 “And we’re clean, which is good we need to be clean now so we don’t get a problem later.”   
As we walk, Nigel points to rows of organic heirloom tomatoes.  The large gnarled, red and yellow fruit is popular with his customers who get the summer specialty well into Fall.  But this year, the harvest was cut short—and many were left to rot. 

  “It’s best not to look… Because all I see is money on the floor, you know…”
Tomatoes are among the quarantined crops.  It seems they’re also a favorite with the voracious medfly-- that can infest and ruin more than 260 types of fruits and vegetables.   Many neighboring farmers were able to harvest their crops because their vegetables are processed—which is allowed under the quarantine.  But Walker’s product is sent out fresh. 

“The first week when we were quarantined, we were short about eight-thousand dollars of produce… we came up 8,000 dollars short of value to put in our boxes.”

The quarantine area is just over 100 square miles.  It went into effect in September after 4 medflies were trapped in the residential part of Dixon. None have been found on the area’s farms.  Steve Lyle with the state Department of Food and Agriculture says it takes only a few of the insects to prompt quick action. 

 “With a medfly it’s two—you find two in an area of close proximity that means there’s going to be an eradication program and a quarantine. 

Lyle says the eradication involves releasing sterile male medflies to mate with wild females to keep them from producing more medflies. The quarantine will be in effect until at least next July. 

"The worst nightmare is the unknowing spread of a pest. And that’s often how a pest is spread. It can hitch a ride in someone’s luggage it can hitch a ride on an apple you take out of the quarantine area.”
The strict clamp down is a precaution against potential losses of nearly two-billion dollars in crops if the medfly gets a foothold in the state.
As for Walker, he accepts the quarantine is necessary but figures he’s lost the bulk of his profit this year.  He says he’ll be happy to break even.  But he found a way to adapt the old adage when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. He invited his customers to partake of the quarantined tomatoes in the only way they could—by cooking them on site.   He told everyone to bring their camp stoves for a tomato sauce party. 

 “We made some bloody marys, people made some sauce, and everybody seems to have made a great time.  200 people in the field cooking.” 

Walker says the party reminded him why he takes a gamble on farming— as he paused during the festivities and looked around… 

“And I said  Wow! So it’s taken a few medfly for me to realize this is exactly what I want. This is exactly the kind of farm that I want.” 

Walker says he loves what he does and will keep farming—although some maintenance and a trip home to England will have to wait while his finances recover.