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Half a dozen mothers from small town and rural Sebastopol in Northern California quickly rallied hundreds of people to their side to challenge Sonoma County’s Paul Hobbs Winery. He wants to convert a 40-acre apple orchard into a vineyard that would use pesticides; it borders five schools on Watertrough Road, including Apple Blossom and Orchard View. Together they have around 700 children, as well as many teachers, staff, neighbors and wildlife.
The mothers only found out in late April about Hobbs’ plan and in less than a week got over 400 signatures on their petition “Stop alcohol firms from endangering children and the environment.” The conversion has been in process for around a year–as some school officials apparently knew—but parents did not find about it until recently, when workers in hazmat suits showed up to demolish a house and barn.
“We are deeply troubled by the cumulative, chronic, and acute health effects from the use of pesticides, fumigants, insecticides, rodenticides, and other toxic chemicals,” the petition notes.
Parents complain that this fast-moving conversion has had no public input yet and is reaching its final stage. They see it as primarily a health issue. The parents are especially concerned about the possible presence–after decades of pesticide use in the orchard–of lead arsenate in the soil and the damage it is known to do to children.
Hobbs is an international wine baron with a history of clear cutting forests without permits and then paying small fines from his extensive wealth. He owns vineyards in at least half a dozen countries and sells wine for an average of around $60 a bottle.
The petition was signed mainly by locals, but residents of Norway, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Poland and Saudia Arabia also signed the online version. At least one signer is a local elected official, John Eder of the Sebastopol City Council. In 1999, the Sebastopol City Council passed a resolution against using pesticides on City-owned property.
Some signers of the current petition request that people boycott wine made by Hobbs, which includes his Cross Barn label. Others want to try to convince him to be organic.
Sonoma County Agriculture Commissioner Tony Linegar met on May 1 with half a dozen adamant mothers, as well as a former Sebastopol mayor, an attorney, a scientist, and a teacher. The meeting lasted for well over two hours. Linegar agreed to form a working group on the problem and meet with them again May 13.
Mothers Comment on Vineyard Conversion
“We represent many people who are upset by this vineyard conversion. We do not want to be poisoned,” mother-of-two Nicole Baum said. She hopes that this incident might lead to changing some laws, especially as more people move into the countryside.
“Nobody wants their child exposed to something that could hurt them,” added Christine Dzilvelis. “My daughter loves the orchard. It is peaceful and pretty.” It also provides nutritious food—“an apple a day keeps the doctor away”–rather than alcohol.
Dzilvelis and others in the new Watertrough Children’s Alliance are concerned with pesticide drift, asbestos, lead and arsenic poisoning in the soil, and water contamination in the Atascadero Green Valley watershed.
“As the Director of a preschool on the Apple Blossom campus,” writes Barbara Stockton, “I am utterly appalled that this development might occur.”
“My motivation for challenging this vineyard is the science that shows the short- and long-term negative effects of pesticides on children,” commented Estrella Phegan, mother of a five-year-old. “If even one child was impacted with increased asthma, and many more will be, I want to make sure that would not happen here. We Moms are the children’s voices. Keeping our children safe at school is basic.”
“We have children at Apple Blossom and Orchard View schools,” wrote Michelle Muse upon signing the petition. “Our children will be within feet of herbicide and pesticide applications. This is not acceptable.”
Sonoma County does have many sustainable grape growers who are environmentally friendly and use organic, biodynamic, and other integrated pest management practices. Some parents want to encourage Hobbs to make the vineyard organic, whereas others are encouraging him to donate it as a park.
Sun Ridge, a Waldorf charter school based on the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, is one of the five schools contiguous with the planned vineyard. At their annual May Festival at their downtown campus, attended by a couple of hundred people, the vineyard was a subject of conversation among parents, as well as some children.
“I’m upset about not only the health risks to children but also to birds and bees, as well as the loss of open space where wildlife can live and visit,” commented six-year-old Ely’s father Thomas Cooper. “Even young kids at Sun Ridge are upset by pesticides,” commented Jina Brooks. “Waldorf schools are about sustainability and this vineyard would be the opposite.”
“Sonoma County is apples. The annual Apple Blossom Parade is our tradition,” commented eleven-year-old Olivia Litwin. “Apples taste better when they are from here. Apples are good for you and you can make lots of tasty things with them.”
“I got involved with this struggle because I know we can do better for everyone involved—the kids, the farmers, others in the world,” added Dzilvelis. “My daughter loves being at Orchard View School. We would have to leave if circumstances prove not to be safe.”
“We just got a grant to teach eco-friendly things about communicating with the land, rather than taking away from it,” mother Amber Risucci noted. “This is a whole eco-system that we are trying to protect. Many parents have organic gardens and feed our kids as best as we can. Why would we then send them to schools next to large corporate vineyards that negate what we do at home? We try to live as people whose food nourishes us, rather than harms us.”
“We work to bring awareness of the risk of losing our apple heritage, and with it some of our food security. Wine grapes are not food!” wrote Paula Shatkin of the Slow Food Russian River chapter, which is part of an international organization started in Italy with hundreds of thousands of members.
“Apples are part of Sebastopol’s cultural heritage, part of our sense of community, and they are family friendly. Children cannot pick or eat wine grapes. Families cannot preserve them or make cakes and pies out of them,” Shatkin added.
“Sonoma County has one of the fasted growing organic food industries in the United States,” writes former Mayor Craig Litwin, a graduate of Apple Blossom who has three children in the school district. “Any spray near the schools is clearly not worth the health risk for the economic reward. There is a valid concern over what heavy metals and other toxic residue would be stirred up if the old apple trees are uprooted.”
Sonoma County’s wine industry is apparently the most lucrative in the country. This attracts more vineyards each year, which reduces land for food farming. The county is a leader in the growing food movement to grow healthy food and to insure food security at a time when our futures are uncertain. Chemical agriculture is a major cause of global climate change with all the fossil fuels that it requires.
Industrial Vineyards as Chemical Warfare
Setting up a new conventional vineyard is like chemical warfare against the soil and other living creatures nearby. Only a few would be pests to the vines, but in the attack the protected, uniformed chemical warriors kill many beneficial insects and other critters to create their sterile mono-crop. Then the stakes go orderly into the ground in regimented, industrial rows.
This is not nature’s way. Nature will then try to recover by sending up a cover, labeled weeds, to which the chemical warriors return regularly to de-nude the ground again. One would not want to be nearby, especially if you are young, fragile, and vulnerable.
The hazards of agricultural chemicals are revealed by the following:
- The West Fertilizer Company near Waco, Texas, accidental explosion of chemicals on April 17 this year killed 15 people, mainly firefighters, and leveled 80 homes.
- 168 people were killed in 1995 by the deliberate igniting of agricultural chemicals at the Oklahoma City Federal Building, including 19 children under 16 years old. 324 buildings were damaged and 680 people were wounded.
- The European Union recently banning certain pesticides because they have been implicated in the massive bee colony collapses, which threatens the pollination of one third of humanity’s food supply.
“How can the school continue to be called Apple Blossom if there are not apples to be found nearby?” writes Amy Taganaski, who has two children there. It is not the right place for a vineyard, contend the mothers and their growing number of allies.
Nor the right winery. Hobbs has been described as the “bad apple” of Sonoma County’s bloated wine industry.
Hobbs’ Public Relations Manager Tara Sharp claims that the winery plans to be “good stewards of the land.” Its track record is otherwise. Hobbs “zeal for deforestation” was detailed by journalist Will Parrish in a June 2, 2011, article in the Anderson Valley Advocate (AVA).
Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo published a blistering critique of Hobbs in 2011. “Hobbs has shown a blatant disregard for Sonoma County, its resources, his fellow vintners and community sentiment” Carrillo is quoted as saying on the Sonoma County Gazette website. “His wines are unpalatable as they carry strong tones of environmental harm with overwhelming notes of arrogance.”
This current struggle, according to former Sonoma County Planning Commissioner Rue Furch, may “help us move the county to a more sustainable agricultural future.”
The following website was recently set up:
The first public news of this conversion appeared at WaccoBB.net. The conversation on the thread there has included over a hundred posts and remains lively:
Shepherd Bliss teaches college, has contributed to two-dozen books, and continues the organic farming that he has done for the last 20 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.