Pictured: Diane Ladd, actor and Ojai resident shows the mask she wears outside to prevent health impacts from pesticide spraying on citrus orchards around her home in Ojai.

by Kimberly Rivers

krivers@timespublications.com

Events and experiences are converging in the Ojai Valley, starting a groundswell response to an issue that has been marinating in Ventura County for decades: agricultural pesticide use.

“What the hell is happening? Of course the farmers are scared. I don’t want to hurt them, we want to help them,” said Diane Ladd, the 84-year-old actor and resident of the east end of Ojai. “That is our goal, but I’m not going to stand by and let them hurt me…it is a costly game they are involved in.”

Ladd is working with fellow community members organizing in the Ojai Valley to force a community conversation and action. Last Saturday, Sept. 28, about 300 people signed a petition at a town hall meeting in Ojai asking for steps to reduce pesticide spraying in the area.

In her office at her comfortable home, with her troupe of dogs at her feet, Ladd spoke about how she became acutely aware of the chemicals around her and how they are impacting her life. 

Diane Ladd speaking on Sept. 28 about her concerns related to pesticide spraying.

“I’m healthy now, till they spray again. Do I want to take more antibiotics and steroids and be on the breathing machine again? No, I don’t. I’ve got work to do,” said Ladd, pounding her fist on the wood desk. She describes respiratory issues, scar tissue in her lungs and problems with her esophagus that required a procedure to correct. “I’ve got films to make, books to write. I’ve got a life to live and they have no right to interrupt my destiny.”

“I live here on the east side, and for years I did not pay attention. Of course I knew they were spraying,” she said with a subtle southern accent signaling her southern roots. Her home is surrounded by the orange orchards that make the Ojai Valley a picturesque place. She recalled an incident of spraying near San Antonio School a few years ago.

“A huge farm was being sprayed . . . and they have the sign on the ground of the skull and bones.” Ladd saw mist from the machine “rising and drifting towards the school . . . and the kids were all playing at lunchtime. So I called the school and said ‘get your kids inside, somebody is spraying poison.’” She couldn’t do more at the time — she was traveling a lot — and the incident fell to the back of her mind.  

This summer, an incident with her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Murray, brought it full circle.

“On June 7, I let my dog out for maybe 10 minutes at about 11: 30 [at night] to go pee and when he came back in it was horrible,” she recalled. “He moved like a train on a track and he wouldn’t stop. It was like a comet. He was terrorized . . . he had something on his paws. He was trying to lick it off and he was trying to climb the walls . . . We couldn’t stop him, my husband and I. Finally he turned over, with all four paws in the air, and had a seizure. Then he had a second seizure.” She called the veterinarian, “I got him out of bed and he met me at the clinic [ in Ojai ]. He put Murray in an oxygen chamber that saved his life.” She spoke with the vet by phone the next day to ascertain what had happened. After hanging up, “five minutes later I got a text from Rebecca Tickell . . . she sent a photo of a helicopter spraying . . . and said, ‘shut your windows and your doors — they were spraying yesterday and today.’”

“So we were at home, it was June 6, and a helicopter flew over our house,” said Rebecca Tickell, who lives off Cuyama Road in Ojai with her two children and husband, Josh. The Tickells are documentary filmmakers, focusing on environmental issues, but this was the first time they were experiencing something in their own backyard. “It was an aerial spraying helicopter. That morning we all started sneezing . . . our eyes got irritated, we were congested and honestly it made us feel a little confused, foggy, like it was hard to think.” She said they decided to “evacuate” to Santa Barbara. “As soon as we got to Ventura we opened up our windows and we stopped sneezing. That acute allergic reaction we were all having stopped. It was obvious we were having a reaction to the chemicals that were landing in our backyard. Literally.” Tickell said she reached out to neighbors, who shared a recent letter from a nearby grower.

Citrus orchards in Ojai being sprayed on Sept. 16, 2019. Photo taken by Ojai resident Nikki Nicoletti.

“Our neighbors had gotten a letter from Barnard Ranch that they were going to be spraying,” Tickell said, noting that the letter was needed to protect her neighbors’ bee hives. “The last time they had done that they killed all of their bees. Well, our bees died right after that happened; we found a bunch of dead bees around our house.” Tickell wanted to know what Barnard Ranch was spraying. She was referred to a woman named, “Anita, at Mission Produce, and after I was hounding her to tell me what was sprayed, maybe it was three requests, she finally got back to me a week later . . . it was Timectin and summer spray.”  

The letter from Mission Produce states that Timectin and IAP Summer Spray Oil are used as part of the “mandatory” spraying program. Summer Spray is listed as approved for “organic production” and is a “narrow range petroleum spray oil.” Chemicals used for pest control are mixed with various oils as part of the application process. Directions for application state that “aerial applications only when weather conditions do not allow ground application.”

“This is the annual time of the year where mandatory spraying needs to take place, the County is also conducting their spraying in the area,” stated Anita Lemos, vice president with Mission Produce in an email dated May 31 notifying Tickell’s neighbor about spraying scheduled for June 8. “Unfortunately, we have to spray along with the County.”

Timectin is the brand name of a product containing Abamectin, an insecticide approved for use on various crops including citrus and avocado trees. The manufacturer label states possible effects from exposure include “muscular incoordination, muscular tremors,” and that the product is “harmful if absorbed through skin . . . toxic to fish and wildlife . . . do not apply to water.” Regarding the potential for drift, the label reads, “highly toxic to bees…do not apply when weather conditions favor drift from target areas. Do not apply this product or allow it to drift to blooming crops or weeds if bees are visiting treatment area.”

“When I read that [text from Rebecca], I said, ‘mother of god, my questions just got answered, my dog got poisoned,’ ” Ladd recalled. She began to see evidence of chemical spraying all around her. “How much spray is going into the air of California?”

From left, Rebecca Tickell and Patty Pagaling, preparing for the town hall on Sept. 28. Submitted.

“Josh and I have a long history of working on these environmental issues, especially around pollution,” said Tickell. They were in Louisiana in 2010 in the wake of the British Petroleum oil spill. “Everyone was told, ‘it is safe, everyone come down there, swim in the water, it is safe.’ Then we come to find out after that it was not true, so many people got sick as a result of that. So this is not the first time where we’ve been in a community where pollution was happening and the people were told that they were safe, and the people knew that that was not the case. And this just happens to be literally in my backyard. So it’s a little different than it was in the past, its more personal.”

Town hall meeting in Ojai – Act local, think global

For the past ten years Ventura County joined with other citrus growing areas in ramping up pesticides spraying in an attempt to prevent first the arrival of the Asian Citrus Psyllid (ACP), and second, when the bug arrived here a few years ago, to prevent it’s spread and stop the spread of Huanglongbing (HLB) a disease caused by a bacteria, which is transmitted by the ACP. HLB decimates citrus trees.  

This summer the Ventura County Farm Bureau announced that a group of specially trained dogs had detected the deadly bacteria at farms across the county, including the Ojai Valley. This created a push by those agencies to work to get more growers to participate in the voluntary preventative spraying program across the county.

Activists calling for changes in conventional agricultural systems have responded with science data pointing to healthy soil as the answer.

“The answer is to maximize the diversity and strength of the life in the soil.  When you have healthy, biologically alive soil and a healthy ecosystem, pests and disease-causing organisms don’t take over and toxic pesticides are unnecessary,” said Patty Pagaling, executive director of the Ojai based nonprofit organization, Transition to Organics. She is referring to data from Dr. Elaine Ingham, “a renowned soil microbiologist,” as a way to combat the spread of HLB using regenerative agricultural methods. Pagaling has been working in the Ojai Valley on this issue since 2008. “Biodiversity is the key to a balanced, healthy ecosystem. From a healthy regenerative ag perspective, it just doesn’t make sense to spray poisons into our air for us to breathe and into our soil where food is grown.”

The town hall panel on Sept. 28 in Ojai, from left: Josh Tickell, Steve Sprinkle, Annemiek Schilder, Connor Jones, Adam Vega, Eric Cutter, Jonathan Katz, Tim Mallor, Kathy Nolan, Rebecca Tickell. Photo by Stephen Adams.

Johnathan Katz, a citrus grower in the Ojai Valley who supports regenerative methods, described the increased spraying in response to the ACP as a “response bungled by the regulators of conventional agriculture,” and said the increased spraying has “made the situation worse,” because the chemicals kill the microbes the soil needs to be healthy, in turn making the trees more susceptible to disease.

After a broad discussion about the economics of agriculture, the need to grow for local consumption, and how soil microbes are vital for human health, Eric Cutter, a biochemist and a regenerative farmer at Alegria Fresh in Irvine, spoke about how he grows 60 different plants on “2000 square feet and feed[s] five families.” He pointed to some thick, dark soil on the table in front of the stage that was used in a demo showing how healthy soil holds water. The humus filled soil came from land farmed in Ojai by panelist Connor Jones, “That is black gold, you can grow anything in it.”

For more information visit www.transition-to-organics.org

Information about regenerative agriculture: www.ojaicra.org

Proceeds from the sale of Diane Ladd’s book, Spiraling Through the School of Life, are being donated to fund blood testing for those impacted by spraying. www.dianeladd.com

Online only: 

For information about the petition presented at the town hall, visit: www.regenerateojai.com

For information about the pesticide spraying programs in Ventura County visit: www.farmbureauvc.com/issues/pest-issues