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War on Bugs
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War on Bugs

The people of Rincon-Vitova are in the business of breeding warriors

by Stephanie Kinnear / photography by Philip Littel
Ventura County Reporter, 12-8-4

In a small, musty building at the far outer reaches of Ventura Avenue, Stefan Long is fishing through a box full of little plastic containers. He picks one up and peers through the clear plastic at what appears to be a thick layer of sawdust at the bottom of the bottle. Twisting the red plastic lid and gently tapping a little bit of the powder out into the palm of his hand, he holds it up to eye level. "Persimilis" Long says, pointing at tiny red flecks in the dust. "Can you see them? Beneficial mites." They sound harmless enough, and look it: They are small, almost invisible to the untrained eye, but to a Two Spotted Spider Mite, the kind of bug that can put a soybean grower out of business overnight, the Phytoseiulus persimilis is a creature to be feared.

batch of ladybugs
A batch of ladybugs ready to be deployed.

Long, an entomologist at Ventura’s Rincon–Vitova Insectary, digs through more boxes and pulls out more containers filled with more tiny, insignificant looking bugs. He rattles off an endless list of unpronounceable scientific classifications. There are bugs everywhere—microscopic ones, flying ones, creepy ones, cute ones. Out the door and down a dirt–path is "fly alley"—a place most visitors don’t see, because the stench is essentially unbearable. Around the corner is a small, poorly lit and poorly ventilated room where tiny black predatory beetles are feeding on big yellow squashes. When the time is right they will be brushed off their temporary home, packaged up and shipped off to a conscientious farmer, gardener, or researcher, probably somewhere far, far away. Once the little beetles reach their destination they will be released, and at that point they will do what nature has intended—like a little sci-fi militia of highly trained assassins they will hunt down the bad bugs and, systematically, they will execute them.

They are so precise that they will miraculously accomplish their mission without harming the soil; without harming the plants on which the enemy bugs feed; without poisoning the groundwater; without making the air dangerous to breathe.

Rincon-Vitova Insectary proper, if you can find it, doesn’t look like an assassin training camp; it actually looks rather unremarkable from the outside–it appears to be nothing more than a cluster of old yellow farmhouses tucked between a bike path and Highway 33.

In the front building–the only building on the premises, not counting a stray fly here or there, that is relatively free of insects–Everett "Deke" Dietrick, founder and president of Rincon–Vitova, keeps his office. He sits behind a modest wooden desk, surrounded by books about bugs, pamphlets about bugs, paperwork about bugs. Deke leans forward, smiles and apologizes for the unreliable nature of his hearing aid. He has been in the commercial insectary business for as long as it has existed and, as it turns out, is one of the main reasons it exists at all. As any organic farmer or gardener worth his or her salt will tell you—Rincon–Vitova is the oldest and one of the largest commercial insectaries in business today.

In the 1940s Deke was on a football scholarship at Whittier College when he took a job as a biological aide at the University of California’s Statewide Biological Control Department, headquartered at the Citrus Experiment Station in Riverside. Although his job—counting the number of California red scale alive and dead after a good heavy dosing of DDT—was entirely unglamorous, he had the opportunity to work with the preeminent figures in entomology and biological control at that time. Those years were the heyday of pesticide use in this country, but were also a time of great experimentation and thought in the field of non-toxic pest control and are now considered the genesis of Integrated Pest Management (IPM).

After enlisting in the Coast Guard and serving in New Guinea during World War II, Deke returned to California and, over the course of the next ten years, worked on numerous biological control studies. As a result he became quite convinced that beneficial insects were not only a feasible way of controlling pests, specifically in citrus, but that they were actually far more effective and safe than chemical pesticides. He had witnessed pests acquire resistance to pesticides (something that does not happen with biological control), he had seen DDT fail miserably, and he recognized an opportunity to launch a commercial insectary. In other words he believed he could breed beneficial insects and sell them for profit. So he did, secretly, out of his garage, growing Aphytis, an insect that appeared to control the red scale on lemon trees.

At about the same time, Deke also teamed up with his old friends Ernest and Douglas Green of Green Pest Control in Ventura, and opened Rincon Insectary in an old abandoned restaurant on Rincon Beach. Later, in the 60s, while president of Rincon, Deke invented a contraption called the D–Vac—a bug vacuum of sorts used to collect samplings of bugs, good and bad, in cotton fields. The use of the D-Vac paired with the release of Trichogramma wasps, was the foundation of Rincon’s biological control method for cotton. During this time, the entomologists at Rincon also began visiting farmers and consulting with them on the best cultural and biological methods for controlling pests in their fields—the first generation of “applied insect ecologists” was born.

In 1971 Rincon merged with the Vitova Company to become Rincon–Vitova Insectary. Now, after close to 50 years of research, Deke is still convinced that if cultural and biological controls are applied properly pesticides are completely unnecessary. "You know it’s a big argument: What is a pest?" he says thoughtfully. “A pest to a lot of people is just a name of an insect, and one of them is too many. But really a pest is any insect that is out of place and is bothering you, or economically bothering you—a farm—and so you can tolerate a certain number of pests. But when DDT came along, the vision was that you could rid the world of insects. And that’s what they set about to do. The Department of Biological Control was appalled by this lack of understanding of the ecology, because ridding the world of insects would be impossible.

“I call it the war on bugs!” he says laughing. "We always have, in this country, a war on drugs, or a war on whatever. Everything’s a war!"

None of this has been easy—there has been resistance every step of the way—from the Pesticide Control Authority (PCA), from the pesticide industry, and from the farmers themselves. Although the dangers associated with pesticide use are now well known, farmers and commercial gardeners feel compelled to use them because, as Deke explains, common knowledge has held that, in the world of agriculture, the only good bug is a dead bug. Of course there is hardly anything further from the truth.

Not only are there such things as good bugs, they are abundant, and the people at Rincon-Vitova believe they are far more effective than pesticides. Pesticides not only poison the environment, they also upset the natural balance that occurs within the ecosystem of a field or farm, and by doing so cause the field to become dependent on chemicals and eventually less productive. Like drug addicts, fields get so they cannot live without the very chemicals that are making them sick. Thus, sometimes Rincon-Vitova must step in and act as a sort of farm rehab—weaning a farmer off of his chemicals and onto a steady diet of alfalfa and beneficial insects—until they are sober and functioning better than ever.”

“The worst thing about these pesticides,” says Jan Dietrick, Deke’s daughter and Rincon-Vitova’s manager, “is that the insects develop resistance to them so fast, so they’re such a short term solution. They’re distracting the agricultural, the horticultural, community from continuing to develop biological methods. They’re kind of like short term Band-Aids delaying the evolution of long term, permanent biological methods. You can’t say low-risk pesticides are bad. They’re a lot better than… DDT, but for us they are also delaying farmers from making a commitment to biological methods.”

Although making that commitment to biological methods can be a tough decision, farmers may soon find it necessary, as restrictions on pesticide use in California continue to pass through the state’s legislature. On September 30th, the Pesticide Drift Exposure Response Act (SB 391) was signed into law. Andrea Wilson of Californians for Pesticide Reform, a coalition of 175 to 180 groups dedicated to the reduction of pesticide use in the state, explained that it is a two-part bill aimed at emergency response following pesticide drift exposure. One part of the bill holds pesticide applicators responsible for the medical expenses of people poisoned during such an incident—a financial liability that should send a number of farmers knocking on Deke’s door—especially in an area like Ventura County, where schools and residential areas commonly butt up against agricultural areas and the risk of drift exposure is great.

The public policy and advocacy group Latino Issues Forum (LIF) has also recently launched an offensive against pesticides with a campaign calling on the Department of Pesticide Regulation to phase out six highly toxic, drift-prone pesticides currently being used in California. According to the LIF, more than 90 percent of pesticides used in California drift away from where they are applied and 34 percent of the 188 million pounds used in 2000 were extremely toxic to humans—capable of causing, cancer, respiratory distress, and other life threatening illnesses.

“The Latino community represents over 70 percent of farm workers in agriculture,” explained Rey Leon, Policy Analyst at LIF. “In terms of an occupation issue first and foremost pesticides have been something that have impacted the latino community… Pesticides of course are toxic; they contaminate our land, our water and our air. They’re especially dangerous if you’re working in them… For the most part farmers know the alternatives, so the only way they’ll use the alternatives is if it becomes more difficult to use the most toxic pesticides.”

Despite the difficulty of overcoming the long-held belief that spraying is the only way to farm, Rincon-Vitova has seen some considerable successes over the years. In 1997, Jan Dietrick founded the non-profit Dietrick Institute as a way to provide training and education on biologic pest control. The Institute has recently been working with a 73-year-old cotton farmer in Kern County. By convincing the farmer to grow alfalfa (a crop that attracts beneficial insects) in the area around his fields, they have gotten him off of his steady diet of chemicals. The lygus bugs, which spell death for cotton, and the lygus predators, greatly prefer the alfalfa and thus never go near the cotton.

They’ve done the same thing for cotton farmers in the Coachella Valley and watermelon growers in Bakersfield. Through the Institute Jan has traveled to Turkmenistan and, in October, to Uzbekistan, where she worked diagnosing problems in the fields and consulting with local farmers about the benefits of IPM and biological control.

Today Rincon-Vitova has a client list that includes home gardeners, the biggest almond growers in the world, lettuce and broccoli growers in Salinas, large greenhouses, the Central Park Zoo, Disneyland, the University of California, Washington State University …the list goes on.

Ron and his favorite bugs
Rincon’s Ron Whitehurst with a bunch of his favorite bugs.

“The first strategy in cultural management is monitoring, and then you see if it is possible to add some commercially lured insects to the system to resolve whatever is out of balance,” explains Jan. You have to walk a field and go all over the thing…” adds her father. “In the chemical world, they want to make every plant as productive as possible. They want a machine and it’s not a machine, but they try to make it one. If you’re trying biological control, you’ve got to have another standard.”

In other words, switching to biological controls is unfortunately not as simple as releasing a host of beneficial insect warriors on an infested field. It has to be the right insects, at the right stage of development, at the right time. And along with the release of beneficial insects, Deke insists on four other key steps in integrated pest management. Those are: cessation of pesticide use, the growing of beneficial refuges (corn or alfalfa) to diversify the area around a crop, monitoring of insect activity and the development of cultural practices (such as crop rotation).

Sometimes all of this is a lot for a farmer to handle—especially a farmer who is already wary of giving up his chemicals—which is why, along with good bugs, Rincon-Vitova also supplies their farmers and gardeners with continuous support. Sometimes that means traveling to a greenhouse thousands of miles away, sometimes it means an hour on the phone.

“If you put a farmer with my dad on the phone, you feel like you’re walking around in the field,” explains Jan. He’s seen enough that he can then just ask, ‘Are you seeing this?’ And then he says, ‘Are you seeing this?’ He doesn’t have to go there.”

All of this tireless and sometimes thankless work continues to be worth it to the people at Rincon-Vitova. They believe in their little warriors—they feed them well, grow them strong and send them off to battle, hoping that one day all farmers, all gardeners, will realize that there is a better way to do things. Deke leans back in his chair and smiles as he considers a world in which all pesticides are outlawed. “My goal has always been to grow fruit without pesticides or with a minimum use,” he says. “I didn’t go into this to make money. If I had gone into this to make money I’d be selling pesticides, because that’s a good sell.”

 

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