British Columbia fruit growers have voted to continue their support for the Canadian province’s innovative but costly codling moth control program.

Of 435 eligible ballots received by the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association, 65.5 percent favored continued grower support for the Okanagan-Kootenay Sterile Insect Release program.
“A two-to-one vote is a fairly strong endorsement,” association president Joe Sardinha said.

The association sent ballots to its 1,040 members in late December. Ballots returned represented about half the apple and pear growers in the association, Sardinha said. That’s about twice the response to a mail-in poll last year regarding the association’s governance structure.

Cara McCurrach, who became general manager of the SIR program in June 2005, welcomed the results. Grower support allows continued government funding for the program through 2007.

A total of Can.$4.6 million in federal and provincial funding committed over the past year to see the program through 2007 hinged on support from growers and local governments. A Canadian dollar is equivalent to about 85 U.S. cents.

The program has cost $49.8 million since its launch in 1992, and the current funding is the last government money the program will see as it moves to self-sufficiency by 2008.

McCurrach explained that the final round of government funding serves to top up the basic $2.9 million the program expects moth control will cost annually in the coming years. The $4.6 million committed over the next two years will fund cleanup costs, primarily in urban areas.

The budget of $2.9 million is currently raised according to a formula that taps landowners for $1.5 million (53 percent) and orchardists for $1.4 million (47 percent).

Property tax

The arrangement, subject to the SIR board’s approval by March 2006, works out to a property tax on residential property of 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or the equivalent of $135 an acre. Growers with 20 trees or more pay $122 an acre parcel tax.

The parcel tax was just $101 an acre last year, and therein lies the rub for growers.

Since the five municipal districts supporting the program agreed to fund the program only if their costs were limited to just $1.5 million, down from $2.3 million last year, growers were left to pick up the difference. The municipalities also requested the opportunity to review their partnership with the program
in 2008, reflecting impatience with the recurring need to finance the program.

But grower support also has its limits, Sardinha said.

The third of growers who voted to terminate support for the SIR program primarily objected to the increase in the parcel tax, which comes at a time when many growers have seen significant decreases in income.

“We aren’t ignoring the growers who voted no,” Sardinha said. “We will be holding [the SIR directors] accountable to meet the performance targets that they’ve set for their program by 2008.”

The key target is to achieve full control of codling moth populations throughout the program area over the next two years. Control means damage of just 0.2 percent across 90 percent of each of
the three zones in which the program operates.

To date, effective control of codling moth exists only in the south Okanagan, where 93 percent of areas report just 0.2 percent damage. The central Okanagan has achieved control in 81 percent of areas while the north Okanagan is at 83 percent.

The figures are an improvement over 2004, when 82 percent of orchards in the south Okanagan, 50 percent in the central Okanagan, and 56 percent in the north Okanagan reported damage levels of 0.2 percent.

“We’re estimating that over the next two years we’ll be able to increase that to meet the targeted objectives,” McCurrach said.

When moth populations throughout the program area are under control, a single zone will effectively exist, she said. Sterile insect releases will serve largely to keep moth populations in check. The program will then operate solely with local sources of funding rather than provincial or federal government monies.

Focus shifted

While the five regional districts supporting the program may opt to cancel funding in 2008, as may fruit growers, McCurragh said municipal support is key.

“It really does help to maintain the tradition and heritage of the valley by providing this program,” she said.

Originally intended to eradicate codling moths through the release of mass-produced sterile moths among wild moth populations, the program shifted its focus to control in 1999.

The shift fed grower disaffection with the program.

Kelowna grower Alan Clarke, who launched a legal challenge to the program in 2003, is among the opponents. He objects to rising levies on growers when the program has abandoned its original goal of eradication.

Clarke’s lawsuit claimed that the control program wasn’t enforced on a neighbor’s property, resulting in damage to his own apple crop.

Clarke said he ultimately reached an out-of-court settlement with his neighbor but failed to secure damages from the SIR program, as the courts couldn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the moths were from his neighbor’s property.

Despite objections to the program from some growers, Sardinha and McCurragh agree that the program could become the basis for a valuable marketing program by the B.C. industry.

“It may not be organic, but I think there’s still an opportunity,” Sardinha added. “It’s not just about reducing the spraying. … It’s about how we each view our own health. It’s the applicator of the pesticide that’s in the line of the most risk.”

The phasing out of Guthion (azinphos-methyl), no longer available for purchase in Canada and prohibited for use as of the end of 2006, means growers will have to make changes in how they control pests such as codling moth. Simply turning to new products won’t work.

“If you’re going to be controlling codling moth with pesticides, it’s going to be a much more expensive proposition in the future,” Sardinha said.

McCurragh said the establishment of a single control zone in the province would facilitate the use of the program as a marketing tool, particularly in international markets.

The health benefits of SIR’s chemical-free approach to pest control should also appeal to residential property owners who contribute to the program through their taxes.

“People don’t have to worry about the organophosphate sprays coming up into their barbeque,” she said.