One of the gnarly dilemmas facing California agriculture is the impending loss of the fumigant methyl bromide.

This is particularly critical in strawberry production, a $2.4 billion segment of the state’s No. 1 industry that employs 70,000 people annually. California grows 88 percent of the nation’s strawberries. Growers spend from $30,000 to more than $60,000 per acre to produce a strawberry crop, according to University of California-developed crop budgets.

Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) director Brian Leahy has staked his legacy in part on solving the quandary that has faced growers for almost a decade since the worldwide decision was made to phase out methyl bromide.

Leahy gathered a diverse group to tackle the problem, and it has released the Nonfumigant Strawberry Production Working Group’s “Action Plan.” Its task was to specify research priorities for advancing the development of management tools and practices to control soilborne pests in strawberry fields without fumigants.

Leahy calls the plan “our road map to guide the research required to find production practices and tools necessary to maintain a viable strawberry industry without fumigants.”

Methyl bromide was technically phased out by 2005 under an international treaty to protect the earth’s ozone layer. However, its limited use is allowed under "critical-use exemptions" at least through 2014.

Leahy admits growers who rely on fumigants are “up against wall” in finding methyl bromide alternatives. “Growers are definitely losing that tool.” Other fumigants are available. However, restrictions on their use, particularly in urban areas, makes using them problematic.

There are many strawberry production areas, especially in coastal regions that are being encroached upon by housing developments. This makes the methyl bromide replacement challenge even more critical.

The working group established focus areas for research and priority action items for DPR, the research community and the strawberry industry to pursue.

“This was a diverse group of people who set about the common goal of developing a plan to produce strawberry without fumigants,” said Steve Fennimore, University of California, Davis, Extension weed specialist, based in Salinas, Calif. “Despite the variety of backgrounds and opinions, a consensus arose. The plan is based on sound science and practical systems.”

 

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The recommended priority actions are categorized into three focus areas:

Discovery recommendations include:

• Expand breeding programs for genetic resistance to soilborne pests.

• Investigate, monitor and manage soil microbial populations to promote plant health.

Research and Evaluation recommendations include:

• Improve viability of options such as anaerobic soil disinfestation, biopesticides, biofumigants, soilless substrate, steam, and solarization.

• Determine how these techniques could be combined into an integrated pest management system.

• Promote more collaborative research.

Adoption, Demonstration recommendations include:

• Ensure comprehensive and easily accessed resources are available for producers online.

• Develop ways to mitigate risks growers take when adopting new practices early.

• Consider new approaches to grants for growers and new options for crop insurance.

• Foster early adoption of alternative practices, such as in regions with nearby sensitive sites like schools.

“Full implementation of the action plan recommendations will require a major commitment of time and resources by a broad range of groups in the private and public sectors,” said Leahy.