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Wine Country Activists Stand Up To Pesticide Spraying
Published on Thursday, February 1, 2001 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Wrath Over Grape Spraying
Activists Prepare to Protest Spraying of Grape Vines
by Pamela J. Podger
 
Sonoma, California -- The war against a lethal vineyard pest is couched in war terminology, with calls for "search-and-destroy" missions to eradicate the "enemy."

But in eco-vigilant Sonoma County, the call to arms has rekindled the anti- war spirit of progressives, who object to proposals to spray pesticides to rid the land of the menace.

Activists, some dusting off their Vietnam-era skills, have vowed civil disobedience against any spraying, saying it threatens public health for the sake of the economic well-being of the wine industry.

Organic farmer Shepherd Bliss of Sebastopol, one of the core members of the No Spray Action Network, said it is the beginning of a mass movement.

"There is something in the air from the 1960s -- the pace has quickened," Bliss said. "We want to match the enthusiasm of the young people with the skills, tools and experience of the older people."

At the center of the controversy is the tiny glassy-winged sharpshooter, a voracious pest that spreads the incurable Pierce's disease while feeding on grape vines. The bug has infested 13 counties, mostly in Southern California but also Contra Costa, Sacramento and Butte counties in the north, and spawned a $40 million government battle to curb its spread. In Sonoma County, the owner of a Healdsburg nursery voluntarily sprayed his plants after an adult was detected last summer.

Under the California Department of Food and Agriculture's emergency powers, mandatory spraying can be done -- even over the objections of private property owners -- to eradicate a bug that threatens farming.

In Sonoma County, however, "affinity groups" -- or resistance cells, in the terminology of another time -- are forming to block spraying. Some groups consist of parents whose children attend local schools. Others consist of members of the same drumming circle.

Older demonstrators with experience fighting DDT spraying or nuclear power are sharing their nonviolent tactics with younger generations.

The proposed spraying is a "clarion call" for community involvement, former Sonoma Mayor Larry Barnett told 350 people who crowded into a school auditorium recently to lay plans against what many of them see as ecological slaughter.

The meeting opened with the sounds of an ox horn and ended with the words of a Herman Hesse poem. Starhawk, a Cazadero author and veteran protester, urged the crowd to expand the number of affinity groups to help block any spraying of private property.

"What is direct action? It is getting in the way of what they are doing," Starhawk said. "It is not just objecting to what you don't want -- it is living for what you do."

Ishi Woods, 22, with a redwood sapling tucked into his hair, said he was part of an affinity group called Planting Earth Activation.

"I don't want to be poisoned," Woods said. "We need to educate people about the chemicals that they are using. These are warfare leftovers. Now they want to spray it on agricultural lands, and that is where we live."

Protests against widespread spraying date back 20 years to when helicopters sprayed malathion to eliminate Medflies. And spraying could be used again, if scientists come up with a fungicide to protect the state's beloved oak trees from a killer dubbed Sudden Oak Death.

Bliss said the affinity groups could even be mobilized to protest oil drilling in the Arctic Circle or off the California coast.

"People have been hungering for a rallying issue," Bliss said. "People have been asleep to the trends of environmental degradation. And now they're waking up."

But Nick Frey, executive director of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association, said the no-spray movement is off the mark.

"Our feeling is that there are some wrong assumptions, or implications, that are being made. I think the point is, wide-scale spraying is not being called for," Frey said. "Localized spraying could help grape growers and other people, and help Sonoma County avoid becoming an infested county."

While the pest hasn't gained a foothold in Sonoma County, it does pose a threat to the county's $2 billion wine industry. Armed with emergency agricultural regulations, county officials have been trapping for the bug, which hitchhikes from infested regions on shipments of nursery stock, citrus and bulk grapes.

In November, the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a plan that permits emergency spraying, even in residents' back yards.

The pest is dormant over the winter, but the activists are gearing up for springtime protests. They say the bug is a harbinger of an ecological imbalance, that with 52,000 acres planted in wine grapes, Sonoma County is tilting toward a dangerous uniformity in agriculture. They champion more crop diversity and organic farming methods as an alternative to spraying pesticides.

Experimental releases of parasitic wasps hold some promise, as does use of kaolin clays or other nontoxic treatments.

A recent weekend training session at Sonoma State University invoked historic figures, from Gandhi to Martin Luther King, from the suffragettes to the angry Boston Tea Party colonialists, to convey the message that peaceful protest has halted unwelcome government acts.

The attendees did some role playing, too, practicing their techniques in mock protests near an organic apple farm, learning how to lock arms and form a blockade. By going limp, their bodies became heavy and difficult to drag away. By keeping their voices steady and calm, the "sprayers" and "police" were less agitated.

There were protest tips: bring plenty of water, and don't wear sunscreen, which bonds with the oil in pepper spray.

Some people were willing to be arrested, and others preferred to do support work by caring for children, pets and organizing legal help.

"Getting arrested is not the goal," Starhawk said. "The goal is to stop them from spraying toxics on the land."

And Bliss warned against "demonizing" the wine industry, citing several organic wine makers that have joined the no-spray movement.

One of those is Michael Topolos of the Topolos at Russian River Vineyards. He has posted signs saying he will pursue criminal prosecution of anyone who sprays pesticides on his vineyard. He said it would be "devastating" if pesticides tainted his acreage, which has been a certified organic vineyard for 12 years.

"Everyone was an organic farmer until we bowed to this chemical madness 50 years ago," Topolos said. "The use of pesticides isn't sustainable and rational."

Russell Sutter of Sebastopol recently went to a training session that attracted several teenagers, including his 16-year-old son, Owen Sutter. The father said he is willing to be arrested over the issue.

"It just feels morally wrong to go after this threat with the big gun of pesticides and take the public health issues along with it," Sutter said. "It feels like a boundary issue -- there is a boundary around the health of my property and my family. I'm willing to repel them at my homesite and anyone else's homesite who feels the same way."

©2001 San Francisco Chronicle

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