Western Innovator: Grower seeks to counter ag critics

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Central Washington tree fruit grower April Clayton testifies Jan. 30 in front of the state Senate agriculture committee on a bill that would have restricted the use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos to select crops.

Central Washington tree fruit grower April Clayton told an audience last year that the percentage of Americans who farm equals the number who believe they have been abducted by aliens.

The quip, which has a factual basis, got a laugh. It also drove home why Clayton was motivated to become one of the Washington Farm Bureau’s go-to growers for explaining agriculture. There is a need, she said, to counter some wild claims.

“When you look at all the misinformation out there, it’s staggering,” she said.

Clayton, 46, got into farming by marrying a farmer, Mike Clayton. They married in 2005, soon after April earned a doctorate in analytical chemistry at the University of California-Davis.

Mike and April met on a blind date while she worked at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland. She was employed there between graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry at Florida State University and enrolling at UC-Davis.

Dissertation on wine

Her doctorate dissertation was on using nuclear resonance imaging to detect whether an old bottle of wine had become an old bottle of vinegar. She tested six bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon with vintages ranging from 1950 to 1977. Three bottles were spoiled.

She was the lead author of the resulting paper in the Journal of Magnetic Resonance titled: “Using NMR to study full intact wine bottles.”

The paper got press attention. An article in Wine Spectator quoted a New York wine auctioneer saying the technology could be useful in authenticating the quality of expensive wine, providing the testing was quick and inexpensive. It was neither, Clayton said.

Farm life

Mike’s father, John Clayton, a retired Air Force pilot, started the family farm, Red Apple Orchards, in 1965. It has 85 acres of organic apples and 65 acres of conventional cherries in Oronodo, near Wenatchee.

The cherries were organic until powdery mildew, a fungal disease, became impossible to control with organic methods, April Clayton said. “Organic is great, and so is conventional,” she said.

Speaking out

She got her start in farm advocacy speaking up against a statewide ballot measure that would have required genetically modified ingredients to be listed on food packages. The 2013 initiative, which failed, ignited the most-expensive election campaign in state history. The money flowed and so did passions.

“It was definitely trial by fire, and it scared me away from advocacy for awhile because hate mail came,” she said.

Clayton returned, however. “The need is so great,” she said.

Space aliens and farmers

The USDA’s 2017 Census of Agriculture counted 3,399,834 producers — people who own or manage farms. In a country of 325.7 million people, that’s a little more than 1% of the population.

It’s fewer people than the 3.7 million Americans who say they were taken hostage by space aliens, according to a survey published in 1992. (The survey was flawed, according to skeptics.)

To prepare to explain farming to a society removed from its agrarian roots, Clayton went through the American Farm Bureau’s two-year Partners in Advocacy Leadership.

Last year, she was among the farmers who came to Olympia to testify against a head tax on seasonal foreign farmworkers. This year, she testified against limiting the use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos to a handful of crops.

Three minutes

The sheer volume of bills introduced by lawmakers means witnesses are often limited to two or three minutes. (In extreme cases, 30 seconds). Distracted legislators routinely look at their open laptop computers while people testify.

“It’s tough. You drive three hours for, hopefully, three minutes of their time,” Clayton said.

As an organic farmer and chemist, Clayton was a natural to testify about chlorpyrifos, a pesticide under attack by environmental groups and some state attorneys general. The Environmental Protection Agency banned exterminators from spraying chlorpyrifos in homes two decades ago. Use on farms is far more controlled, she said.

“If we’re going to talk about the science of farming, let’s talk about the science of farming and not the emotions if it,” Clayton testified.

The bills that the Farm Bureau organized the most testimony against this year and last year failed.

‘We’ve been lucky’

“So far, we’ve been lucky,” Clayton said. “I am worried I may be regulated out of the business.”

She was invited to speak last year at an event on tariffs and agriculture hosted by the Washington Policy Center, a free-market think tank. “Tariffs are bad, yes,” Clayton began, “but the state legislation will kill our farms quicker than the tariffs will.”

The Claytons experienced how shifting regulations can undermine business plans. The farm built housing for 16 foreign guestworkers. Before the housing was used, however, the state changed the standards. Only 12 foreign workers could be housed, not enough to cover the extra costs of using the H-2A visa program, she said.

The orchard continues to rely on U.S. workers, though not enough are available for harvest, Clayton said. The work is physically demanding and short term, she said. “There just aren’t enough people who want to do the work.”

The labor shortage requires farms to build up their reputation to keep workers coming back year after year, she said.

Another problem looms for this year’s harvest — the coronavirus. Clayton said workers in fields will be able to stay apart. But what if a worker in farm housing comes down with COVID-19? “It’s what everyone is most worried about,” she said.


Posted By: Capital Press

Posted On: 4/10/2020