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Bidding bugs goodbye

State commission helps minor crops deal with pests, register pesticides

March 2016
By Trista Crossley


There’s another state entity in Washington that directs its efforts to putting out fires, only instead of flames, these fires are made of pests.

The Washington State Commission on Pesticide Registration (WSCPR) was created through legislation in 1995 as a response to the tightening of pesticide registration requirements in the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act Amendments of 1988, which required that all pesticides had to be reregistered and meet new safety standards. Rather than spend the time and money to maintain those pesticide registrations, many companies instead elected to drop them, especially for limited-use pesticides and products intended for minor crops. WSCPR filled that gap, funding the research and studies necessary to reregister limited-use pesticides for use in Washington state.

“Washington is an intensely minor cropping state, third in the nation after California and Florida,” explained Alan Schreiber, WSCPR’s administrator since 1995. In fact, minor-use crops such as cranberries, spinach, lentils and chickpeas comprise more than half of Washington agriculture, even though they are produced on a limited number of acres. In 1999, the state legislature expanded WSCPR’s mission beyond pesticide registration to tackling any kind of problem that involved pests.

“We put out pest management fires,” Schreiber said. “If a crop has an unmet pest management need, we could help out. We can figure out a research solution. We can line up a lab, a scientist.”

While WSCPR’s original mandate focused on minor crops, it also works on niche-use products that might be applied to the state’s larger ag commodities. For example, the commission worked on a rodenticide used on wheat to help control mice and voles. It also regularly funds projects involving potatoes and tree fruit.

WSCPR is comprised of 12 voting members from different ag sectors, including wheat; hops; vegetables and seed; potatoes; food processing; nursery and landscape; professional pesticide applicators; and forestry. In addition, there are five nonvoting members who represent state agencies, such as the Department of Agriculture; Ecology; and the Department of Labor and Industries. The commission meets every other month and is funded with state general fund monies. Those funds are managed by Washington State University (WSU), which is a close partner to the commission.

“A lot of growers don’t know about us,” Schreiber said, explaining that WSCPR mostly works with commodity groups rather than individual growers. Proposals to the commission have to originate from a commodity group, and that group has to contribute in some way to the project. That contribution can be cash as well noncash items, such as allowing the commission to use grower fields for research trials.

In 2015, the commission received approximately 45 requests and funded 31 of them. To date, WSCPR has funded more than 900 projects. Some of those past projects include:

• Controlling insects on spinach seed;

• Combating fungicide-resistant diseases in raspberries;

• Controlling weeds in asparagus;

• Controlling blight on chickpeas; and

• Treating soil diseases in tree nurseries.

As with most state agencies, funding has been a constant battle. Schreiber said they originally started with $1 million a year, but in the past 20 years, that has been cut more than half. Their current budget is $455,000. Another challenge WSCPR faces is a shortage of researchers with the knowledge and desire to do applied research.

“We are losing applied research capacity in the Pacific Northwest,” he said. “Either they aren’t filling those positions or are filling them with basic researchers, molecular or computer researchers. People who don’t want to get down and dirty and do applied research.”

What’s in a label?

Registering a chemical means making it legal and developing a set of rules and methods for its application. In other words, it tells growers how much to apply, when to apply it and how to apply it. The product also has to be tested for how much residue is left on a plant, how long that residue stays, and whether or not the chemical shows up in the harvested product.

Once those questions are answered and the chemical is determined as safe to use, a label for a specific use on a specific crop is issued. A federal label from the Environmental Protection Agency is good all over the country. States have the ability to issue a “special local need” label that allows a federally registered pesticide to be used in a different manner on a different crop, but only in that state. In Washington, the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) oversees pesticide registration.

There’s also an “emergency exemption from registration” label that allows the temporary use of an unregistered pesticide in an emergency situation. According to WSDA’s website, an emergency situation “must be urgent and nonroutine and could include an outbreak of a new pest, development of resistance to existing pesticides, unusual weather conditions that caused a pest outbreak or a product cancellation.”