The Department of Pesticide Regulation is convening a diverse work group of scientists and other specialists to develop a five-year action plan to accelerate the development of management tools and practices to control soil-borne pests in strawberry fields without fumigants, Director Brian R. Leahy announced.

“California’s strawberry industry urgently needs practical and cost-effective ways to grow strawberries without soil fumigants,”

Leahy said. “Our Nonfumigant Strawberry Production Work Group has a tall task. We want a full spectrum of production methods that control soil-borne diseases, weeds and other pests while protecting human health and the environment. This group can also help us develop a strategy on how to best use available fumigant tools going forward.”

The 10-member work group is charged with producing a plan by late fall under the guidance of a professional facilitator. Leahy credited California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Matt Rodriquez for suggesting a work group to tackle the complex issue of maintaining the viability of the state’s $2.3 billion strawberry industry in the face of increasing restrictions on fumigant use and the phase-out of the fumigant methyl bromide.

California grows 88 percent of the nation’s strawberries. Fumigants are gaseous pesticides injected into the soil of agricultural fields prior to planting.

“We applaud the strawberry industry for its long history of looking for and implementing farming practices that reduce pesticide use,”

Leahy said. “It’s imperative we speed up the timetable for more production tools in the face of tougher fumigation restrictions and urban development near agricultural land.”

The urgency for nonfumigant methods is underscored by:

● Methyl bromide, the primary fumigant used in strawberry production, 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” through 2014.

● Strawberry growers are replacing methyl bromide with other fumigants, but their use is limited by health-protective measures.

● Growers face increasing costs and loss of land available for production due to buffer zone requirements and other restrictions to protect farm workers and people living near fields. Additional state and federal restrictions on fumigants are expected by the end of the year that will further affect production costs.

● Methyl iodide, a fumigant touted as a replacement for methyl bromide, was pulled from the California marketplace by its manufacturer, Arysta LifeScience, in March.

(For more, see: Plenty of blame to go around for Midas’ demise)

The work group will complement DPR’s research partnership with the California Strawberry Commission. The focus of the $500,000, three-year research project announced in March is growing strawberries in peat or substances other than soil.

In addition, the Brown Administration’s proposed budget includes $500,000 annually for grants that DPR would award for researching nonfumigant production practices. If approved, the first funding cycle for this program would be fiscal year 2013-14. Up to 10 research projects could be funded for up to three years.

The work group, research partnership and grant program are paid for out of the special fund generated by fees that support DPR’s programs.