Paul Hobbs’ Herbicide Spraying Upsets Parents and Neighbors

Health Concerns an Issue

Apple Blossom School has a nice ring to it, as does the Orchard View School at its side. The nearby Tree House Hollow pre-school, with children as young as two and three years old, continues this agrarian theme. These names evoke a pleasant scene of trees with students, teachers, and staff relaxing outside during recesses, as in old-fashioned one-room schools.

The winding rural Watetrough Road in the countryside around small town Sebastopol in Sonoma County, Northern California, leads to these rural schools, which have over 500 students. Sebastopol was known for decades as the home of the tasty Gravenstein apple. YUM! YUM!

The Twin Hills Union School District Board of Trustees last meeting of the academic year occurred May 14, as apple trees throughout the region were indeed blossoming with beautiful views. But not on the land bordering these schools.

Hidden beneath the attractive, compelling school names is the ugly reality of their being sprayed by herbicides proven to cause cancer.

Instead of nature’s apple trees that had been there for decades, as one turns onto the schools, rows of rigid, regimented, industrial stakes in the ground appear, surrounded by brown, dead grass between them. As a neighbor who drives on Watertrough Road many days of each week, I had recently delighted in the bio-diverse, colorful wild flowers that once thrived beneath those stakes, soon to be planted with monotonous wine grapes.

The Watertrough Childrens Alliance (WCA) has struggled with vintner Paul Hobbs since he bought the apple orchard in 2013, quickly demolished it, and began converting the land into yet another chemical vineyard, much to the dismay of families with children in the schools and neighbors.

The WCA sent out an email alert on the day before the meeting that “the spraying of herbicides has begun on the 47-acre vineyard.”

Roundup Causes Cancer

The Agricultural Commissioner’s Office confirmed that on February 14, 20, 21, 24, and 25 Roundup had been sprayed. Ironically, on the day before the meeting the column “Time for California to Corral the Use of Roundup” by scientist Devra Davis appeared in the daily Press Democrat.

Davis writes that the United Nations World Health Organization reported “that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is a probably human carcinogen.” According to another study from MIT, “it also could induce gluten-intolerance, autism and other chronic ailments.” Citizens arrived at the meeting with the intention of reading from that article, but that did not happen.

“Please come and Be Heard!,” the WCA invited. Over a dozen parents and neighbors came and wanted to be heard, but most of the trustees did not appear to want to hear them. They mainly assured them that things would work out and their children would be safe.

The meeting began at 4:30, with citizens gathering outside. The Board soon went into a closed session, and the patient citizens were finally allowed in around 5:30. The “vineyard update,” which was the reason they had come, was buried deep in the agenda, as citizens waited silently.

During their hour outside the meeting room, the citizens freely expressed their concerns, which did not happen much during the carefully-managed meeting. “After Hobbs cut the trees, the wind brings lots of dirt and dust to my house,” commented one neighbor. “It brings debris onto the school,” added another.

“Herbicide spray can easily travel five miles,” said nearby farmer Vince Scholten, who has one girl in the school, and another one who recently graduated. “A buffer zone of at least 100 feet from the school should be established. Hobbs stripped the whole stream-bed. He does not want to sit down and discuss this with anyone. It’s like Wal-Mart moving in. They want to shove it down our throats.”

Another parent, Hilary Avalon, circulated an article entitled “Getting the Drift on Chemical Trespass.” Its sub-title–“Pesticide drift hits homes, schools and other sensitive sites.”

No Spray Zone Requested

A neighbor passed out a flyer that noted signs that surround schools regarding reduced speed limits, no drug zone, no tobacco use zone, and no sex offender zone. It requested, “The time has come for a NO SPRAY ZONE!”

Another parent circulated part of California’s Food and Agriculture Code, section 6614. It says that “no pesticide application shall be made or continued when: 1) There is a reasonable possibility of contamination of the bodies or clothing of persons not involved in the application process; 2) There is a reasonable possibility of damage to non-target crops, animals, or other public or private property.”

Hobbs’ spraying violates this code. Yet he plans to continue spraying, without the intervention of the trustees, who are supposed to be protecting the students, teachers, staff, and parents who deliver their youth into their protective hands.

Superintendent Barbara Bickford and some of the trustees assured constituents that there would be no spraying during school hours and without notification. They tried to minimize the seriousness of Hobbs’ violations. They appeared to be mainly in damage control, seeking to pacify their constituents, rather than listen to their concerns.

Parents felt betrayed. The meeting seemed designed to wear down citizen participation, beneath the friendly smiles from those up front. Perhaps it was fear of public participation? Or perhaps they felt powerless?

“We need a Sonoma County ordinance related to spraying around schools,” said Maben Rainwater, who appeared to be the trustee most sympathetic to citizens. He admitted, “At least in one case, we were not notified of the spraying,” which Hobbs had agreed to do. “We need a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Hobbs.”

“A number of vintners took Paul Hobbs aside and asked him not to mess up things for them,” Rainwater said. Hobbs, in fact, has become known as the “bad apple” of wine makers. Yet he continues with his multiple abuses. His wine costs up to $300 a bottle. Hobbs was liable for millions of dollars for various violations on at least three sites, including Watertrough Rd. He settled with Sonoma County for $100,000 of the millions of dollars that those violations made for him.

“We’re the wrong body to bring these concerns to,” commented one trustee. He tried to pass-the-buck to County Supervisors and to the state.

Parents Defend Their Children From Spraying

Two parents were finally allowed to speak briefly. “I love our school,” said Scholten. “I am concerned with the spraying, even when students are not here. It gets on the tables and the bark. It sticks to surfaces.”

“It is appalling that this is happening here,” Scholten continued. “Regulations are not working to stop it. Is it going to take a child to get cancer for us to get this? You are responsible for my child when she is here. Drift is the problem, not just its application. Hobbs will not follow your MOU. He will do what he needs in order to make money.”

“There are issues that need to be raised,” said Jordan Steinberg, who has two children in the schools. There is a lack of information from the District. In two years there has been no information from them,” until this month. “We need to get the information out and make it easy to get. Parents are busy. I’m asking the board to be pro-active rather than re-active.”

Hobbs says one thing and then does something else. For example, in a letter of May 7, 2013, he wrote to the trustees that “an espalier row of organically farmed apple trees will be planted between Apple Blossom and Orchard View Schools and the vineyard.” That has not happened and does not appear to be happening. He describes “our sustainable farming practices.” Since when is spraying pesticides around children sustainable? “It only sustains his profits,” commented one parent.

Hobbs promised “opportunities for students to harvest apples.” How is he going to do that without any apple trees? His promises seem to have fooled some trustees, though not the parents and neighbors. Citizens were not only locked out of important parts of this meeting and allowed only a few brief moments to speak, but they have had no access to other conversations with Hobbs and his managers. One wonders what might have happened behind the scenes in those conversations and what favors might have been involved.

Some parents plan to attend a workshop by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation on May 28 in Sacramento, which is followed by such meetings around the state. These workshops hopefully will be more responsive to citizen participation than was the Apple Blossom School meeting.

The meeting’s climax came when 10-year-old Montana stood up and testified that she and other students had been sitting at a table outside her school when a pile of debris from the vineyard drifted over and fell on them.

Perhaps Apple Blossom School’s name should be changed to something like Pesticide-Poisoned School.

Shepherd Bliss (3sb@comcast.net) teaches college part-time and farms. Read other articles by Shepherd, or visit Shepherd's website.