By Randy Villegas
South Kern Sol youth reporter Randy Villegas interviewed Kern County’s Agricultural Commissioner Ruben Arroyo (pictured on the left), whose main responsibility is to ensure that Kern’s agriculture industry follows state laws, including pesticide regulations, as well as to protect the public and environment. Villegas spoke with Arroyo about the use of pesticides around schools and the recent cases of pesticide drift in Kern.
South Kern Sol: Is there more or less use of pesticides because of the drought?
Ruben Arroyo: The drought doesn’t really affect agriculture in pesticides. It will affect it [only] in the fact that [if] we have less crops, we have less pesticides. We haven’t really lost a whole lot of acres that would affect the use of pesticides. In the future, if they do not allow water from the state canal, we will lose more acres and have less pesticides. The use of pesticides is mostly based on pest pressures and weather. Most pests cannot survive winter, but we have continual warm winters here in the valley, so as temperature increases our pesticide use increases.
SKS: How is the drought affecting Kern County, specifically South Kern?
RA: Growers know exactly how much water they need and they know how much water they can plant. They must make decisions on what they can and can’t grow.
SKS: Why do you think the pesticide ‘Roundup’ has been banned in many other developed countries but not here in the United States?
RA: I don’t make those decisions. I know that some of the Roundup crops in developed countries may have banned it because of biological concerns of cross pollination. I don’t keep up with that, I have to deal with my state partners. I enforce whatever they put on the list.
SKS: Are parents of students notified when pesticides are used?
RA: This is entirely up to the school districts. They must work with the Healthy Schools Act. Notifications of pesticides on school grounds is a requirement. Some school districts opt out of not using them during the school year. Some don’t spray anywhere on school grounds. Next to schools are the buffer zones for restricted pesticides. However, there are no buffer zones for unrestricted pesticides. The state is currently working on getting a more efficient notification system from schools and farmers.
SKS: What do you think is a good distance for a buffer zone around schools?
RA:Right now we have no specific data to say there is a problem [with] a quarter mile, a half a mile, or a mile. In the past 15 years the problem has been pesticides in school grounds, this is where the issues are themselves. EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] is taking samples at schools to see if there is drift of pesticides onto school grounds. This will play a role in determining the distance.
One point I’d like to make is that the school administration is a key issue. For example let’s say we have some farmers want to use a pesticide and we have a buffer zone of a mile. If we have 15 different growers, during harvest time, the school administration get 15 notices that they will be applying this pesticide within a week’s time. The time buffer is crucial to these farmers because if they wait too long, their crop will be infested with pests. As a result of spraying, a school administrator might keep all the children indoors during recess, thus causing panic in the area. When parents are panicked, they may even have their children miss school …As a school administrator, how do you handle that?
SKS: On the issue of schools and education, what do you think about FFA (Future Farmers of America) and educational programs like the Paramount Academy? Are you a product of either of these programs?
RA: Yes, I was in FFA in high school. It didn’t help me get this job, but it showed me a different aspect of agriculture. I think having any avenue for kids to get involved, whether it’s FFA, band or sports, it teaches you discipline. Especially taking care of an animal, something you have to take care of, and feed it.
I think we are losing that aspect of children knowing where their food comes from. We do a “farm day” in [Bakersfield] every year, teaching kids about agriculture. I think it promotes awareness that our food comes from right here in the valley. We are losing family farms to the corporate farms, and we’re losing that knowledge. The more things we have to teach people about agriculture, the better it will be in general.
Rube Arroyo is a Fresno State graduate who grew up in Lindsay, California. He earned his state license and degree in 1993 and began working as the Agriculture Commissioner in Fresno the same year. He became Kern County’s Agriculture Commissioner in 2008.