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Water: Nonpoint Source Success Stories

Innovative State Programs - California's BIOS Program: Growers Adopt Whole-System Management Approach to Reduce Pesticide Use

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Claire Murray
530-756-8518 (ext. 15)

The Biologically Integrated Orchard Systems (BIOS) project is a community-based pollution prevention program that uses biological methods to replace chemical farming practices. It was started in 1993 to help California almond growers and other farmers reduce their reliance on synthetic pesticides. Already reported as a success in Section 319 Success Stories: Volume II (1997), the program continues to expand and attract new funding sources in addition to 319 funding.

The program was designed to address the problems caused by the pesticide diazinon, which is applied as a dormant spray during the winter as a routine almond production practice. During heavy rainstorms, the pesticide flows into surface irrigation systems, creeks, and streams and eventually into the major rivers of the San Joaquin Valley, the Delta, and San Francisco Bay. Diazinon is an organophosphate that the National Academy of Science has recommended be present only at concentrations below 9 nanograms per liter. It was being found at more than 1,000 ng/L in some runoff pulses.

How the program works

In 1995 the Central Valley Regional Board and the State Board joined the University of California, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, EPA, and numerous private foundations (which were already supporting the BIOS program) to expand the program in Merced and Stanislaus Counties, where diazinon was causing water quality problems.

BIOS participation begins with a customized management plan for each farmer who enrolls a new block of acreage (typically 20 to 30 acres) under BIOS management. Participating growers adopt a whole-system management approach that considers all aspects of production: tillage practices; nutrient, water, and pest management; and soil and water issues in the larger landscape. For example, BIOS uses cover crops, compost, and other natural fertilizers to decrease soil-borne pest problems and promote soil health. It uses biological controls (cover crops, natural areas, and hedgerows) to provide habitat for predators and beneficial insects and to reduce or even eliminate plant diseases and pests. Finally, it relies on monitoring and observation to determine if and when the least harmful chemical should be applied.

The plan is developed with the help of a BIOS Management Team that includes a local farm advisor, university researchers, local experienced participant farmers, and a Pesticide Control Advisor with extensive experience in helping almond farmers reduce their reliance on diazinon and other farm chemicals. Follow-up support continues with technical support, consultation with members of the management team, local educational events like field days and workshops, and technical publications. A comprehensive monitoring program is also integral to each BIOS project.

Encouraging results

According to the Community of Alliance with Family Farmers Foundation (CAFF), 98 percent of the growers who joined the expansion program completely eliminated the use of diazinon. The pollution prevention methods BIOS teaches have influenced not only the 90 growers officially enrolled in the program but also many more growers who have introduced at least some of the BIOS practices in their orchards. A long-time Pesticide Control Advisor in Merced County estimates that at least 60 percent of the county's almond growers are cutting back on pesticides and using some form of biological management that they weren't using before the BIOS program began.

Looking toward the future

As with all innovative programs, the time comes when subsidized start-up funds are no longer available and programs must continue on their own. Direct BIOS management is provided for 3 years; then a transition period begins. From the outset of the BIOS program, the concept was to develop the capability of local organizations to lead BIOS activities and to create a structure that sustains the BIOS presence even after CAFF no longer plays the coordinating role.

In Merced and Stanislaus Counties, the BIOS program is successfully making that transition with the help of two local Resource Conservation Districts (RCDs). The current work with the East Merced RCD and the East Stanislaus RCD is designed not only to transfer BIOS outreach and activities to local control but also to create and document a model for other BIOS projects.

East Merced RCD has already hired a coordinator to take over the BIOS project in that area. Coordinating a BIOS project takes an array of skills—event planning and production, project planning, and group facilitation—and a background in agriculture, including knowledge of agronomy and pest management. Also necessary are skills in database management, newsletter publication, and media outreach. To facilitate the transition, a Transition Coordinator from the BIOS program is mentoring the new East Merced RCD coordinator. As part of the mentor training, the RCD coordinator will meet the network of growers, researchers, extensionists, government representatives (including State and Regional Board representatives), and industry leaders with whom CAFF has established relationships through the BIOS program.

In addition, a Transition Advisory Team (TAT) has been established to guide the RCD program much as the current management teams now do for BIOS projects. Through the TAT, the RCD program will remain connected to the communities of growers, educators, agency personnel, and agricultural consultants that team members represent. Over the coming year, new possibilities for program activities and funding sources will be identified and prioritized and BIOS activities will continue to evolve. Growers are being consulted regarding the activities most important to them—the activities they most want to see continued and the new subject areas into which they would like to see BIOS activities expand.

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