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Saving farmers biggest issue: Lyons

CDFA secretary addresses consultants When the weekend rolls around for California Department of Pesticide Regulation director Paul Helliker, he can look forward to relaxing with family and friends away from his job.

California Department of Food and Agriculture secretary Bill Lyons often goes home to Stanislaus County, Calif., but his time with family and friends is anything but relaxing.

His father, two brothers and neighbors are all farmers or own businesses dependent on farming and ranching, and they are in dire financial straits. When Lyons goes home for a visit, they look to him as California's No. 1 agriculturists for answers to their problems.

"It is tough out there," Lyons told the annual gathering of the California Agricultural Production Consultants Association (CAPCA) at its annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif.

Lyons was not telling CAPCA's Pest Control Advisor membership anything they did not already know, but the frustration in his voice reverberated with his concern about the plight of his fellow farmers and ranchers and people who provide them with products and services.

Lyons hammered home agriculture's plight when asked about what he could do to save prime farmland. The issue, he responded, is not saving land but saving farmers to farm the land. It is hard to talk to farmers and ranchers about saving farmland "when they are going broke," he said.

"There are a lot of good agribusinesses in trouble. The solution is to get good prices for what we are producing," he said.

However, he added, "we produce too much...we are the best at what we do" and overproduction drives prices down, said Lyons. His relatives and friends may look to him for solutions, but he admits to not having any silver bullets.

Specialty crops "Hopefully opening up more export trade will help," he said. "Other than that I don't have any answers." However, he is involved in a coalition of Sun Belt states who have joined together to gain a stronger presence for so-called specialty crops in the next federal farm bill.

"It is hard to promote and protect California agriculture when good business people are going out of business because prices are the same as they were 25 years ago," he said.

Helliker and Lyons were on a panel to talk about the issues facing farmers today and differences between their two agencies. Nine years ago pesticide regulation was part of CDFA.

It was plain that the relationship is a mutual admiration society. While they both admitted differences have arisen, they said DPR and CDFA work closely together on several issues, specifically Section 18 emergency registrations for pesticides and Red Imported Fire Ant (RIFA) and Glassy-Winged Sharpshooter (GWSS) surveying and control.

Lyons said his department is not responsible for the spread of GWSS as it has been accused by its aggressive monitoring program, as some believe it is. "We are going to find it because we are looking for it. When we find it we can get it under control," said Lyons, who believes the key to turning back the GWSS threat is finding a way to stop Pierce's Disease, the disease aggressively spread by GWSS.

Lyons said the GWSS Web site has received 325,000 hits since opened.

The ornamental nursery industry is often cited for the spread of GWSS, but Helliker and Lyons said nurseries "have really stepped up" to monitor and control GWSS to keep it out of production agriculture.

Defend alternatives Both defended research to develop alternatives to current pest control techniques, however, they said they should be viewed as complements to current techniques and proven before implemented.

They called for more funding for University of California Cooperative Extension to validate these alternatives in the field.

"We need time and funding to develop alternatives to the organophosphate materials" that will eventually be lost in the federal and state re-registration process, said Helliker.

Lyons praised the University of California for its research into alternative pest control methods, however, "we need (research) to keep all the tools we now have in the tool box."

The university has been criticized for its emphasis on biological pest control and so-called sustainability issues and ignoring more traditional farming methods.

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