Who Poisoned My Grapes? (Part 2)

by Bob Dempel, November 23, 2016

To review, I knew that my vineyard had been sprayed with an herbicide which originated from someone spraying the railroad property that borders me. I was surprised that while I was waiting for the biologists from the Ag Commissioner’s office to see a railroad pickup coming right down the tracks. The pickup had a large sign right on the door: “Northwest Pacific Railroad.” I could only assume that the employee had been notified by the Ag Commissioner’s office of an impending investigation. As I approached the pickup and the driver I learned that the driver, a Mr. Frank Lovio, just happened to be driving by. He was very surprised when I asked him if he was here for the meeting. He confessed not knowing anything about a meeting or the herbicide spraying problem. At about this time the representatives from the Sonoma County Ag Commissioner’s office arrived. I explained to them that Mr. Lavio was a railroad employee. Questions arose as just who and when had applied herbicides to the railroad property. Mr. Lavio was extremely cooperative and supplied the name of the Pest Control operator. In fact he had the owner’s phone number. And would the biologists like to talk to him? Lavio supplied his cellphone to call the herbicide applicator.

At this time I thought investigation was going forward at a very good pace. I had the county there, the railroad representative, and by phone the herbicide applicator. The railroad employee and the applicator both admitted to applying herbicides to the railroad property right next to my vineyard that exhibited herbicide symptoms.

The investigation had started. This would be a short investigation with positive outcome.

Little did I know that this investigation would not be completed until 18 months had passed? The events that follow that day read like a soap opera.

The next visit to my vineyard from the Ag Commissioner’s office occurred a couple of weeks later. This visit was coordinated with a visit with the Pest Control Operator (Applicator), and a representative from just one of the herbicide manufacturers. The applicator showed up on crutches, complete with bib overall and a bad attitude. He stated the herbicide damage to my vineyard could not have been the result of him spraying the railroad property. He even took a movie of the application. He had been in business for 50 years, and his father before that. In my previous life I was a sales representative for Ortho chemicals. His father had been a customer of mine. I knew who this applicator was. He is even 10 years younger than me. He would not walk into the vineyard and look at the damage. In fact I had to arrange for my neighbor’s wife (Supervisor J’s sister in-law) to transport him in an ATV back to his vehicle.

The chemical manufacturer’s representative did tour the vineyard with me. He was young and new to the business. I went into great detail and time to show him the herbicide symptoms throughout my vineyard. He had driven old crutch-face applicator over to my vineyard from Davis where crutch-face had an office and yard.

I then received the revised official letter dated July 28, 2015 from the Chief Deputy Agricultural Commissioner. The letter stated that they wanted to make certain that I understand the following laws and regulations. According to Division 7, Chapter 1, Article 12671 of the California Food and Agriculture Code(FAC).

“It is unlawful for any person to pack, ship, or sell any product that carries pesticide residue in excess of the permissible tolerance which is established by the director pursuant to this chapter.”

Now if this verbiage doesn’t scare the shit out of you just read on dear fellow citizen!

Packing shipping or selling produce with illegal pesticide residues is a SERIOUS violation of the law, which can subject you to CRIMINAL PROSECTION (under the FAC) section 12996, civil penalties of up to $25,000 for each violation (FAC), section 12998, or civil administrative penalties of up to $5,000 for each violation (FAC section 12999.4 )

The Sonoma County Department of Agriculture is recommending that Bob Dempel, Dempel Farming Co. Inc, confirms via private lab (laboratory) sampling, that the crop does not carry an illegal residue prior to harvest and sale of produce.

I have never referred to my grapes as produce. I also know how to spell laboratory. All of this was signed by Sue (not her real name) however I knew the gist of this letter. I already had sent plant samples at great expense to Columbia Food Laboratories for an analysis. I knew what the results were. I knew that the results from the samples taken by the county biologist was going to take more time than I had before harvest. Now Sonoma County wants me to take more samples from the fruit at more expense to my company.

The harvest clock was ticking. This incident was consuming my whole summer. But I was not alone. White shirt had spent a full day walking up and down the railroad bed looking for more indication of herbicide damage. Sure enough he found three more vineyards with herbicide symptoms similar to my symptoms. Ironically all of the herbicide symptoms were on the east side of the railroad tracks heading south. Old crutch-face has sprayed or allowed spray to drift onto three of my neighbors. They all got the same letter I received. One of them just ignored the County letter. The remaining three responded as I did.

By now harvest was just a month away. I had to act, Sue (not her real name) had given me 19 pages of EPA protocol to follow when sampling and shipping the samples of fruit to the laboratory. The protocol included such things as special gloves, distilled water, special knives to cut the fruit, double plastic bags, insulated boxes to ship in and dry ice to keep the samples cold. I also had to take samples from different areas of the vineyard and label them as such— basically, the vines closest to the railroad, a little farther away and a good distance away. I also had to take samples under the supervision of white shirt. We made an appointment for 8am on a certain day. Ironically one of my good neighbors was required to do the same testing so he met me at my vineyard on the same day. We both followed the 19-page EPA/DPR protocol and sampled both of our vineyards. We were done by 8:30 and had the refrigerated box shipped off. Around 9am white shirt shows up. I tell him the samples are taken and shipped. Well, white shirt doesn’t work until 8am and by the time he goes to the office, checks out, and drives to the vineyard it’s 9am. Hell, I have a half-day’s work done by 9am. At my old age of 80+ I try to get home in the afternoon for a nap. Sometimes I meet with Mr. Korbel for a tasting.

White Shirt is not happy, He thought the sampling would take longer. He would at least be there for part of it. Additionally I am causing him stress asking for the results of the samples he took in June. Hell, he’s the one who told me his sample results would be back in 30 days. My plant samples were back. I had my own results. By now I knew what materials had been sprayed, by whom, the date and time. And by the way, a neighbor close by had a weather station and I got a wind speed and direction read-out by the minute for the date of spraying. My case was coming together. I don’t care how many years of experience crutch-face has, he sprayed on a windy day and drifted the spray onto vineyards along the railroad starting at the Sonoma County Airport Road going north and ending at my ranch.

I spent more money and asked the laboratory to rush the results. Of course this cost more, but my time was close to running out. Harvest was just day away.

I received the results on Monday of my scheduled pick. As I predicted, residues only showed up in the vines right next to the railroad, Picking was now scheduled for Wednesday of that week. As a precaution I had the first three vines from each row next to the railroad picked on Tuesday so they would not be comingled with the grapes from the balance of the vineyard, Sure enough Sue (not her real name) had more rules for me on just how I was to dispose of the possibly infected fruit. Again I followed the protocol.

But fate struck me again on Tuesday, the day before I was scheduled to harvest the balance of the full field. I received a call from Derrick Moore, a reporter from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. He had found out about the erroneous spraying and wanted to do a story on it. For many reasons I did not want the story to come out in the Press Democrat on the same day I was picking. The on-line version is available also the night before. So I made an agreement with Moore: You hold the story one day and I will give you a complete interview on Wednesday afternoon which is after the grapes will be long gone into the tank.

(to be continued...)

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