Nothing is closer to me than my grapes. I live and breathe each and every vine. So when I traveled down the Pinot Noir rows and observed damage I was immediately concerned. In no time I inspected damaged leaves and stems. They were not growing properly. Something was dreadfully wrong. The leaves were misshapen, the growing tips were distorted. I have over 50 years of experience in both the vinicultural and the agricultural field. I started my career working for Ortho Division of Chevron Chemical Company, a wholly owned company by Standard Oil Company of California. In four years I was promoted to the same number of jobs. I hold title to Outstanding Salesman of the year for three consecutive years. A title that has never been passed or even equaled in the past 57 years. I held a senior Pest Control Adviser’s License in the State of California until I let it lapse last year. I have worked for legal teams, insurance companies and certified in California Courts as a witness.
I inspected almost every vine in my prized Pinot Noir Block. Clearly the vines closest to the neighboring railroad track were the most damaged. I surveyed the damage as I have done for years. I rated the damage on a scale of one to four. The most severe damaged being a one and the least being a four and a five would be no visible damage.
After contacting the Sonoma County Agriculture Department and months of my investigating I have reached a conclusion. An out of state company named Alligare was the culprit. They are based in some town called Okiekaloke, Alabama. Alligare had a new untried formula of a weed control chemical they wanted tested in California. There is a process whereby a chemical company can apply to the State EPA and gain approval to apply this new untested weed poison. The need is just to where Alligare can apply this poison. For some unanswered reasons Alligare choose to apply the poison to the berm of the railroad tracks right next to my prized pinot noir grapes. Alligare found some applicator who would apply this poison. The applicator was applying poison in the area and he agreed to stop his sprayer on the railroad tracks on my south border. Mix up a concoction of this new Alligare formula. And just to make sure all of the weeds were killed, the applicator was instructed to include another Alligare material along with four other poison materials. The second Alligare material was not labeled for use in vineyards; in fact the label stated a warning that it not be sprayed close to vineyards.
Never mind the warning, just spray.
Alligare had an approval from the State of California. What could be better? Never mind my prized Pinot Noir grapes. Alligare needed business.
No one in their right mind sprays herbicides next to a budding vineyard. But that is just what the Alligare applicator did. In late March as the vines were just emerging from a long winter’s night sleep they got sprayed upon with an Alligare poison. The wind was blowing at mid-day, right from the west onto my vines. Alligare denied it through their young inexperienced salesman.
The investigation process included the County Agriculture Department to issue to me a demand letter that I have the grapes tested to prove that none of Alligare’s poison was in the grapes before I could harvest. This demand included several pages outlining the process I needed to follow. What it did not say was that the cost of the testing was to be paid by me. Yes, I needed to pay thousands to have my grapes tested. So simple: Alligare sprays, Dempel pays. I thought that I could send a bill to Alligare and they would immediately offer to pay for the cost of testing and the loss of a small portion of the crop right next to the railroad tracks. Wrong again. Not a word from Alligare. Two years passed with not one reply.
Meanwhile the County investigation was moving along at a slow pace. Finally after two years a report was issued. Alligare’s applicator was responsible and charged $4000 fine for the poison to my Pinot Noir Grapes. The insurance company for the applicator had already recognized the applicator’s fault and settled a small portion of my loss along with the freight company. Still no response from Alligare. I attempted to contact the person Alligare uses to receive service for Alligare in California. Alligare is smart. All of my correspondence was returned. I was at a dead end. An out of state company hiding behind a secret company. Return to sender.
I was attracted to an article in the Western Farm Press about a mediation service. This service was available to agriculture producers who had problems with USDA agencies. Now for clarification there are about 29 USDA Agencies. In my opinion way too many. I contacted this mediation service. I had had contact with the Farm Service Agency regarding the TAP program. Through many hours of communication I actually got some relief to replant a vineyard nursery. When it came time to submit additional bills the FSA reneged.
That is where I contacted the mediation service. Farm Service Agency played hard ball at their state office. The mediation service was successful in getting a face to face meeting with the FSA acting director. And I actually got a letter of apology from a UDSA agency. Mind you no additional money, but a letter of apology.
Coming off what I consider a success, I thought the mediation service could help with the unpaid bills from Alligare. Alligare contended I was rude to the receptionist. So to smooth things over I had to write a letter of apology to Alligare. This is the company who is responsible for spraying my grapes. I waited for some time and again asked for payment. Again no response. I have had to pay for all of the required tests of the Alligare Chemicals and they got the apology from me.
Meanwhile, the applicator appealed the decision of the County Agriculture Commissioner. A hearing was held before a commission hearing officer. It lasted all day. The hearing officer upheld the charges against the applicator. The applicator then appealed to the State Director of the EPA. The State director upheld the decision of the County Agricultural Commissioner. Still no word from Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar if the applicator has indeed paid the fine. Linegar estimates the costs to the county for the investigation and hearings to be in the tens of thousands of dollars. Of course, Alligare will never pay any of that.
But still Alligare refuses to pay me for the costs I incurred to test my grapes so they could be sold. I am at a dead end. I cannot find Alligare. The mediation service blames me for being rude to the receptionist and Alligare rides off into the sunset scott free.