While tourists filled the roads during blossom season, an unexpected challenge to local pear orchards quietly took hold amongst those beautiful blooms, along those same roadsides.
According to Jean Godfrey, executive director of Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers Association, early June brought bad news to a number of pear growers with orchards along highways 35, 281, 282 and 285. Something was damaging the trees.
What began as a single grower phone call to Wilbur-Ellis Branch Manager Bruce Decker soon became a story shared by several orchardists — mysteriously damaged leaves and fruit in pear trees planted along those roadways.
“It really was Bruce Decker who went to investigate after the first call and figured out that the damage he was seeing looked a lot like the results of the roadside herbicide ‘Payload,’” said Godfrey.
“This product has a history attached to it,” Decker said. “It used to be used under a different trade name (Chateau) and had been used in Hood River orchards in the past. Over the course of time, we found out that pears are super-sensitive to it and under certain conditions would show injury.”
That “injury,” Godfrey emphasized, is not a food safety issue. The primary chemical in Payload (Flumioxazin) is routinely used in other food crops but is not approved for use on non-dormant stone fruit trees.
Instead, what is causing concern is the appearance of the affected fruit, which is ripening out with spots and marking.
“This is not fruit that the consumer is going to want to eat,” said Godfrey. “We are not sure if the cannery will take it at all.” That is where the prickly issue of financial losses and liability arises.
In addition to the potential negative affect on sales, Godfrey acknowledges that the trees themselves may defoliate, or worse.
“We still don’t know the full extent of this,” he said.
Decker was instrumental in providing a possible answer to the source of the contamination — and the possibility of reparations for farmers who may see diminished future returns from their crop or wider losses.
“I recognized the type of damage I was seeing and called up ODOT to see what they had been spraying. It was quite evident that the further away from the road you went, the damage became less and less severe,” Decker said.
One of ODOT’s regional maintenance representatives responded promptly to Decker’s call and confirmed a switch to “Payload” for this year’s May 2, 7, 8 and 10 spray program.
While damage varied widely between orchards, in part due to wind or farming practice affects on material distribution, interest in the problem was universal.
“We held a grower meeting with Oregon Department of Agriculture on June 8,” said Godfrey. Of the 70 orchardists in attendance, several had severe damage.
“ODA is now conducting an investigation,” she said. “They have already taken soil, leaf and fruit samples and confirmed that Payload was found.”
There will be another round of testing this week and within the next few months ODA will issue a finding. At that point, if ODOT is found responsible for the incident by ODA, ODOT could either offer reparations to growers or opt to allow growers to file individual suits.