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Who Poisoned My Grapes?

If you travel the Highway 101 corridor or as I do you see the remnants of the great transporter of the 20th century: the Northwestern Pacific Railroad line. I think there is still a trestle somewhere south of San Rafael that can be seen from Highway 101. Certainly you can see the new rail lines north of Novato that soon will be used by SMART (Sonoma Marin Area Rapid Transit). Those refurbished lines now run clear up to Airport Boulevard north of Santa Rosa.

North of that, the railroad lines are ancient rails, ties, trellises and bridges that carried freight and passengers since the late 1800s clear up to Ukiah. Hobos have set fire to some of the fine historic wooden tunnels between Cloverdale and Hopland, making the rail line impassible, even for the little maintenance scooters that have become classic. A member of the Frey family from Redwood Valley has one stored at Hopland at Chris Keiffer’s ranch and uses it as a sport to drive between Hopland and one of the burned out tunnels to the south.

This is the same rail line that is adjacent to one of my vineyards just south of Healdsburg. The railroad property runs at an angle to my property so I have what are called grapevine point rows, some 31 rows and right at the edge of the railroad property. For years the railroad has been a good neighbor. They are just a couple of old sets of steel rails on a wide berm of gravel near these end rows. Being close to Healdsburg many people use the old rail line as a path to walk into town from Grant Avenue or even farther. Just north of me is an old historic railroad bridge over the Russian River. Next is the Plaza right in the center of town. There has never been any problem other than one homeless man who set up camp on the other side of the tracks a couple of years ago. Someone started using my vineyard employee restroom and I suspected it was him. A nice deputy came and asked him to move on down the tracks which he did in a couple of days.

Everything was fine until May of 2015. Everything I observed that day in my vineyard changed my life forever. It was just a normal day for me. Up at 6am. Quick breakfast. Headed right up to the Healdsburg Ranch. (We also have a ranch at Hopland and a managed ranch at Ukiah.) I can't remember if I was spraying or mowing. I came to the end of one of the rows right next to the railroad. Something was wrong with the end vines. They were not growing properly. The leaves were all distorted. The growing tips were malformed. I stopped the tractor. Got off. Went closer to check the vines. This can't be happening. It didn't take me seconds to mentally compute what was wrong. Someone had sprayed an herbicide close to my vineyard and it had drifted toward my grapevines. Just north of me are some liveoak trees. From the ground up to four feet all the leaves and branches were dead on the trees from my west property line all of the way to the intersection of our county road back side of my nice neighbor to the west.

To set the stage, these are not generic wine grape vines. These are highly prized Russian River appellation Pinot Noir clone 113 lines. They demand a premium price. They are my retirement.

I am a licensed pest control adviser in Sonoma County, kind of like a plant doctor for pests and diseases. I've held this license since it was implemented and necessary for chemical salesmen. In the 1960s, I supported legislation that would upgrade our profession. I also hold California Department of Regulations Qualified Applicator and Pest-Control Applicator licenses. I have worked on agricultural chemical drift cases in previous years. I have been qualified as an expert in court, worked for growers as well as insurance companies, on exactly what I suspect had happened on my own grapevines. It was definitely clear to me that someone had recently sprayed the brush, weeds and ground along the rail line property and the chemical or combination of chemicals had drifted onto my vines and affected them. The worst damage was on the vines right next to the railroad.

The correct first course of action is to notify a county Agriculture Commissioner with a verbal request for an inspection. All agricultural commissioners in California are regulatory. They enforce the state Agricultural Code and the California Code of Regulations in addition to the many county ordinances.

I did what I thought at the time was the correct thing to do. I called the Office of the Sonoma County Agriculture Commissioner and reported a possible application of herbicides that had drifted onto my grapevines. If proven, this is a serious violation. My call was taken with the professional response that I expected. A follow-up call from the Commissioner's office set up a time for a biologist to visit my vineyard and visually confirm herbicide drift. I was still in the vineyard at noon Wednesday when three biologists from the Commissioner's office showed up. I suspect this was nearly half of the office working staff. Ironically, just prior to the biologists’ arrival I observed a Northwest Pacific Railroad pickup driving down the railroad. These pickups do not just drive down, they are fitted with small steel wheels that can be lowered onto the tracks. The pickup then becomes a small railroad vehicle. It can only travel where the tracks take it. I waved down this vehicle and an employee identified himself as the manager of maintenance for the railroad, John Lavio. I asked if he was there for the meeting with the biologists.

"No," he exclaimed to me, "what meeting?"

My response: "Well, we have had herbicide drifted onto our vineyard. By any chance do you know the name of the pest control operator who applied the material or materials?"

I could see that the entire width of the railroad property had just been sprayed. And if there were any overgrown trees above the property they also got sprayed.

"Certainly," he said. "Do you want his name and do you want to talk to him?"

I nearly peed in my pants. "Yes, please get him on the phone."

By this time all three biologists had joined in on this conversation. The applicator was AG Chem Services out of Davis, California (no connection to UC Davis) owned by Paul Washburn. After the biologists had extracted all of the information from him they needed and from the Northwestern Railroad Man, they returned to their office.

Later in the day, I received another call from one of the biologists who wanted to return and take plant samples from the infected vines to send to the state labs in Sacramento. The time was set up for him to return. This young biologist always wore a starched white shirt with a large silver button in front. Could it be a body camera? "Young white shirt" toured the entire vineyard and physically divided it into four separate blocks. #1: vines next to the railroad with obvious symptoms; #2: vines with just slight symptoms; #2: vines with questionable symptoms; and #4: vines with no symptoms. Exactly what I would have done if I had been hired to evaluate the damage.

But "white shirt" was not done. Next he wanted to take samples from each section. The samples from the four sections were to be sent to the State Department of Food and Agriculture laboratory for testing. This is important; the results would be back in 30 days. Actually, later he told me they were sent to a lab run by Cal-EPA. A few days later I received a letter from the chief biologist at the Commissioner's office stating that it was up to me to also have my vines tested at a private laboratory or the Commissioner would not allow the fruit to enter the food chain. I could pick up a letter outlining the procedure and suspected chemicals to test for at the Commissioner’s office. Please contact Sue (not her real name).

What happened next was preposterous. I had a meeting at the Commissioner's office I met Sue (not her real name). We sat down in the conference room and she continued to tell me that her research indicated that out of the five materials that drifted on to my vineyard, one of them had been applied using a CAL DPR research application and that the material contained two chemicals. I sat there like a bump on a log. This now means that the letter she was going to hand me was already invalid and she would not give it to me today. A new letter would be issued in a week or so. All this bullshit was happening while my grape crop was nicely ripening and I had to have the lab results back in my hand prior to harvest. This was the first sign to me that the people handling this case are completely incoherent. What Sue (not her real name) would do is tear apart the letter physically and give me at least the five names of the chemicals I need to test for so I could get on with the process. And by the way, here are 19 pages of instructions you need to follow in taking, bagging, and shipping the samples to the lab. And here is a list of 20 labs that you can employ to do the testing. I had been told by other professionals in the industry which lab they preferred which was Columbia Food Laboratories in Oregon. I looked at the Commissioner's list and sure enough: Columbia Food Lab was not on the list. I had already talked to them, worked out the fees (which I was paying) and the timeline (very short).

So Sue (not her real name) and I were in a stern verbal battle. (I love this new word stern that I picked up from neighbor John Pedroni.) What it really means is fierce. I need the Cal DPR to approve Columbia Food Labs for testing. They are approved in Oregon and by some California agencies, but not DPR. This takes a few days, but DPR finally got their head out of their butts and added Columbia Food Labs to the approved list.

(To be continued…)

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