Alternaria, botrytis, septoria—most blight has a natural cause and a known method for treatment and prevention. But what can growers do when blight is manmade?
Agricultural land has long been vulnerable to illegal dumping. Many farms and orchards are at once easy to access from the roadway and isolated enough that trespassers are unlikely to spotted. Even when violators are caught red-handed, fines vary widely and may not be sufficient to deter the activity.
In addition to the time and expense spent cleaning up others’ trash, growers contend with damage to drip lines and to trees themselves—similar to the side-effects of people trespassing in almond orchards to take photos during bloom. But unlike selfie-seekers, dumping is a problem year-round, and one that receives relatively little media attention.
Derek Azevedo, executive vice president of Bowles Farming Company in Merced, California, has long dealt with junk and trash dumped in orchards and fields. “We find everything from couches, tires, cars, appliances, mattresses, and regular household garbage to green yard waste.”
Photo courtesy SAYLOVE
“Illegal dumping is a problem that has occurred forever,” Azevedo says, but he’s noticed some subtle changes. “With the legislation to reduce green waste in landfills, we are finding more yard waste dumped at the end of rows or discarded with branches that we have collected.”
Azevedo and others say they're concerned for food safety and frustrated with the impacts of illegal dumping—not only on farms' bottom line, but on the environment and local community.
Resources exist for cleanup and abatement
Stephanie Becker, grant manager of CalRecycle’s Farm and Ranch Solid Waste Cleanup and Abatement Program, says rural communities bordering larger urban populations are often the most vulnerable to this problem. In some cases, city-dwellers with every intention of disposing of waste the right way are getting fleeced by bad operators, too.
“Californians may pay someone to haul away their trash or landscaping materials, not considering that less reputable workers may pocket the money and illegally dump materials,” says Becker.
CalRecycle recommends that consumers obtain a final destination landfill receipt from haulers before issuing final payment, and make use of state programs to handle specific types of waste when possible. “Recycling and reuse programs are a great way to reduce illegal dumping,” Beckers says.
As for the growers stuck footing the bill, CalRecyle offers community grants to restore agricultural properties. Landowners working with their local county, city, tribe, or resource conservation district can apply for funds to support cleanup and abatement measures such as cameras, fencing, and barriers.
Since the grant program began in 1998, CalRecycle has awarded 11 million dollars to communities to restore nearly 800 sites.
“I have a list of growers interested in the grant program,” says Kelli Evans of Sutter County Resource Conservation District. “We are seeing results in preventing repeat dumping at locations that have received funding through the CalRecycle program. Evaluating each location for the strategic addition of fencing, gates, and cameras enable us to use this program to solve the illegal dumping problem in many farm fields and orchards.”
Community pride powers grassroots response
It’s not just the state taking action against illegal dumping. Continually frustrated by the trash dumped in his peach, plum, and walnut orchards, Jeff Stephens of Yuba City founded the nonprofit SAYLOVE in Sutter and Yuba counties. (“SAY” stands for “Sutter and Yuba".)
With the support of local businesses, SAYLOVE volunteers meet monthly for community service that often includes trash cleanups. Though the gatherings have been impacted by COVID-19, Stephens say events can draw anywhere from 30 to 300 volunteers ranging from 5 to 80 years old.
Photo courtesy SAYLOVE
“We have collected construction and landscaping material, tires, boats, sauna, cars, household trash, and about everything else you can imagine,” Stephens says. “The local landfill allows us to dispose of the things we collect for free.”
Donations from both individuals and businesses—of dump trucks, skid steers, trailers, and cash—show Stephens that SAYLOVE is deeply appreciated. And for good reason: last year the group collected 300,000 pounds of trash.
“We see the results of our efforts. We place signs that say, ‘this area was cleaned up by SAYLOVE,’ and we show others the dedication and pride we have in our community."
The signs stand as a quiet reminder to would-be dumpers that farms and orchards aren’t vacant spaces free for others' garbage—but working lands, family homes, and community assets.