Legislation assessing California grape growers and processors $5 million a year for research on the glassy-winged sharpshooter and the deadly bacterium it carries was polished for introduction in the Assembly the first week of February.

Authored by Assembly member Patricia Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, whose district includes Napa and Sonoma counties, the bill is co-sponsored by the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG) and the Wine Institute. Other major California agricultural organizations made input to the legislation.

Dana Merrill, Paso Robles wine grape grower and chairman of CAWG, gave strong support to the bill during the recent Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento.

He pointed to the devastating effects of Pierce's disease in Temecula vineyards, spread of the pathogen and its vector elsewhere, and commitment of more than $30 million in state and federal funds for research.

But he added, "We can't afford to fall short. Now we are only fighting with a holding action. The wine grape industry needs to do something for itself with a mandatory assessment, even though it may not be a popular thing. If ever there were a challenge that warrants a mandatory assessment, this is it."

The Pierce's disease bacterium, Xylella fastidiosa, attacks vascular systems of more 100 plants, including crops such as grapes, citrus, almonds, alfalfa, and stone fruit, as well as many ornamental species.

Merrill said the consensus of his industry is it should take the lead rather than wait for others to organize. "The best way to lead is by example." The goal is to raise $5 million per year for the program.

Proposed assessment The bill proposes a maximum assessment of $3 per $1,000 of crop value based on the final purchase price on all grapes crushed for wine, wine vinegar, juice, concentrate or beverage brandy. California wine grapes in 1997 had a value of about $1.76 billion.

In the case of grapes not purchased, such as those of a producer/processor or custom crushed by a producer, assessment would be calculated based on the weighted average return by type, variety and district as in the Annual Grape Crush Report.

Processors would be notified of the assessment rate by July 15 of each year, and assessments would be deducted from producers' proceeds and remitted to the Department of Food and Agriculture by January 10. All proprietary information would be confidential.

Assessments would be spent only for assessment collection issues and for research and other activities to foster and advance industry sustainable practices.

The bill would establish a board of seven producers and seven processor/producers all appointed by the California Secretary of Food and Agriculture from among industry nominees. No more than one person from a producer or processor entity would be allowed to serve on the board. The secretary could also appoint a public member.

The board would select officers and set terms of office, recommend an annual assessment rate, recommend an annual budget, receive funds from other sources, establish claims, and adopt necessary procedures and bylaws.

An urgency clause would make the bill effective upon signature by the governor, and the law would be repealed as of January 1, 2006 unless extended.

Merrill said funds would be spent on a balance of basic and applied research, keeping in mind both new and established vineyard plantings. Urban outreach would be included. Plans are to collect assessments from the 2001 crop and allocate them in 2002.

Noting that indiscriminate spraying is no way to control the large leafhopper, Merrill said, "all our IPM programs are also at risk, and we've come a long way with them.

"The sharpshooter becoming established has big implications for preservation of ag land. At least in my area, if you take wine grapes out of the picture, going back to alfalfa and sugar beets doesn't look too good."

Wiggins chairs the Assembly Select Committee on California Wine and is a member of the Assembly Agriculture Committee.

"This bill," she told Western Farm Press, is about agriculture stepping to the plate to help itself in a time of great crisis, and with the bill, the wine industry makes good its promise last year to find a solution itself using private funding.

"The sharpshooter represents an indisputable threat to the future of the industry. I applaud the industry for its vision in seeking an answer for Pierce's disease and the sharpshooter through this innovative approach."

A spokesperson for Wiggins' office said the bill was drafted once industry groups decided on the best approach to dealing with Pierce's disease and its vector.