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12.12.07

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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs


Moth spray-free veggies, the mystery of rising biodiesel prices and the news for writers from the front lines of the publishing world.

Organic's Organic

The state-operated planes that sprayed the Santa Cruz area with Checkmate LBAM-F last month will likely be silent until March, but the same can't be said of folks worried about the safety of the treatment. A group of concerned residents, most of whom work in the natural food industry, are actively seeking organic produce grown outside the spray zone.The pheromone spray, which is designed to confuse male light brown apple moths by distributing the scent of females throughout a wide area, is not a threat to the certification of organic farmers. But some purists consider produce sprayed with the pheromone to be no longer truly organic. In the past couple of weeks, a coterie of spray opponents has begun the process of petitioning local natural food stores to create a system whereby customers can differentiate produce grown within the sprayed region and produce grown outside of it.

Jeff Wolfe, who works as a sales representative for natural food distributor Threshold Industries in Scotts Valley, was one of the first to seek out unsprayed organic produce.

"There are people who really want organic vegetables and fruits, and they're concerned with the lack of research indicating whether the spray is safe or not," he says. "One of the reasons we decided to live in this area was the availability of organic produce, and we don't think the sprayed produce is organic anymore."

Wolfe took his concerns to a member of the produce team at New Leaf's 41st Avenue location, who was able to indicate which of the store's produce items had been grown outside of the spraying zone or before the spraying began.

The fact that the New Leaf employee was able to easily identify produce grown outside the spray zone can be chalked up to the foresight of New Leaf produce supervisor Mark Mulcahy. "Before the spraying even happened, I brought to the attention of the produce managers that I wanted them to provide at least one variety of lettuce and at least one variety of greens, such as chard, from outside the spray zone," he says. "That way people would have an option if they were concerned about the spraying."Nūz applauds Mulcahy's cleverness. While some of the concerned residents would have liked to see clearly visible labels indicating unsprayed produce, Mulcahy decided that would have been unfair to the growers—some of whom he has worked with for 20 years—who happen to be located in the spray zone. Instead, he posted a list of farms within the zone in the back room of the store so employees could check the farm's spray status when asked by a customer.

"Farmers move their crops," he notes. "For instance, Lakeside lettuce was in the spray zone last month, but now they're shifting south because it's better weather down there. So a month ago they would have been inside the spray zone, but now they're outside the spray zone. Someone could forget to take down the label, and then it wouldn't be accurate anymore. There are many levels here. But if someone asks us a specific question, we can give them a specific answer."

Mulcahy also notes that a majority of the fruits and many vegetables offered at New Leaf come from outside the Santa Cruz area anyway. Additionally, the locally grown apples were picked before the spraying began.

Shopper's Corner and Staff of Life don't have any plans to implement programs that would indicate unsprayed produce.

Next up, Nūz rang Santa Cruz Farmer's Market coordinator Nesh Dylan to see if he was changing any of his business practices in the wake of the spraying.

"It's going to be hard for us to force farmers to indicate whether they are inside or outside the spray zone," he says. "Those guys generally do whatever they want. I'd suggest customers talk to the individual farmers and ask them where and when the produce was picked."

While no one wants to scapegoat organic farmers, who had no say in the decision to spray, Wolfe and others hope that by purchasing pesticide-free produce they can bring more organic farmers into the anti-spraying ranks. Tom Dadant, another concerned resident, has been petitioning all the natural food stores he frequents to purchase unsprayed produce.

"If we really look at what happened, we took a whole county of organic farmers and changed the truth of the matter as to whether everything should really be labeled organic," argues Dadant, a former organic farmer. "There are certain purists out there, myself included, who would look at the spray and say that isn't an organic practice."

Oil and Trouble

The recent price hikes in the petroleum market have, to say the least, not gone unnoticed by the American public or the media. Groans of disgust ring throughout the land, and analysis of the price hike has saturated primetime news networks to the point of nausea-inducing tedium.

But that's petroleum, right? Biodiesel is another story, right? Looks like those diesel-driving hippies and do-gooders are getting the last laugh, right? Wrong! Nūz was surprised to find that buried deep in the avalanche of petroleum coverage is the fact that the price of soybean-derived biodiesel—not a petroleum product, last time we checked—has also shot up in the past few months. So much for doing well by doing good.

Locally, at Pacific Biofuels' Ocean Street fueling station, prices went from $3.39 in early November to $3.59 in early December. At Toro Petroleum's bulk outlet facility in Salinas, and at its pumps at the Alliance station in Monterey, the price is now $3.75, which represents a 10-cent increase from the last time Toro bought biodiesel from its suppliers in early October.

Now, it's not as drastic a jump as petroleum diesel, which bounded, smelly Superman-like, from $3.20 in early November to $3.61 by month's end, according to Toro. But still! Nūz wonders why the price of biodiesel seems so closely to track the price of petroleum. After all, isn't it supposed to be an alternative?

Turns out that when it comes to the economy, nothing is that simple. One of the biggest factors leading to the increased price of soybean biodiesel in the Monterey Bay region is the fact that nobody in the area makes the stuff. For Annie Bohlman, purchasing manager at Toro Petroleum, that means she has to go through a number of middlemen to buy the 10,000 gallons she stores at the Salinas site. The middlemen are charging more as transportation costs increase, and those are driven largely by the real or perceived tightening of petroleum supplies.

"We have to buy it from someone who ships it from somewhere else, delivers it in one truck, which puts it in a tank. Then we send a truck to get it from the tank to deliver it to us," says Bohlman. "We're talking about it changing hands like five times before it gets here. Since we have to make money off of it, we charge a price that makes sense for us."

Ecology Action biodiesel expert Michael Drury seconds Bohlman's analysis.

"Certainly transportation costs are skyrocketing," he concurs. "Most of the virgin soybean oil that comes to us from the Midwest comes in big rail cars, which end up in Oakland or Fremont."

In a sign of the complexity of the biodiesel market, Mike Sack, CEO of Pacific Biofuel, gives yet another reason for the price hike. "The suppliers raised their prices because the price of soy has skyrocketed, partly because during this planting season farmers grew more corn than they did soy," he says. "The reason fewer farmers were planting soy this year was because people were getting better prices for corn due to the demand for ethanol."Does Nūz detect the stinky vapors of some intra-alternative fuel rivalry? Seems Sack has put his finger on a critical piece of the puzzle.

According to a report from the University of Iowa's agronomy department, this year represents the largest corn-planting season in the United States since World War II, with a 15.5 percent increase from 2006. Meanwhile, soybean acreage decreased by 11.1 percent compared to last year. The final result is 90.5 million acres of corn planted in 2007, compared to 67.1 million acres of soybeans. This has caused the price of soybeans to increase (or "skyrocket," to use the preferred term) at the Chicago Board of Trade from $10 a bushel in early November to $11 a bushel at the beginning of December.Drury adds to this cauldron of factors the fact that both of these fuel sources are also inputs for the human and livestock food chains.

"One of the unintended consequences of using a raw material which is also a crop used in the human food chain is that there's too much competition for a limited resource, and that's pushing the prices up," he says. "Any crop which is used as a fuel, but is also a crop needed by food producers, pushes the prices up."

It's not going to get better anytime soon. With the price of petroleum facing an uncertain future and fears of unchecked greenhouse gases wreaking havoc on our planet's atmosphere, Drury notes demand for petroleum alternatives is at an all-time high. Some states, like Minnesota and Hawaii, are even requiring that ethanol be blended into their state's petroleum supplies.

On the veggie oil home front, despite the biodiesel price increase, local pumping stations have not seen demand decrease for the product. Instead, Bohlman believes most customers are willing to chip in for an environmentally friendly alternative and understand that the price increases are part of a larger inflationary trend in the economy.

"When the cost of manufacturing and transportation goes up, everything goes up, including the cost of the steel to make the trucks, etc," she says. "It's called inflation."

Outlook: Letters

The literary heart of Santa Cruz skipped a beat as a sold-out audience packed the Museum of Art and History's conference room to hear a panel of local literary glitterati, along with publishers, literary agents and independent booksellers, talk about getting published in the 21st century in a workshop presented by the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County. OK, chin up, old dears: it appears that writers of novels, short stories and poetry have a snowball's chance of getting a book published in the traditional manner in a shrinking marketplace, while nonfiction writers are living in a golden age. (To which Nūz says: Oh, yeah?)

Literary agent Michael Larsen described how six global conglomerates control U.S. publishing and how blockbusters like Barnes & Noble and Borders and new technology have changed the way books are written, published and sold. He encouraged "nichecraft:" finding an idea that lends itself to a series of books and building a career, book by book. "Write what you love to read," he advised.

Santa Cruz's James Houston, whose 23 books include the highly acclaimed Snow Mountain Passage and Farewell to Manzanar (co-authored with Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston), has seen an increasing logjam of authors doing readings in bookstores while on promotional tours; he prefers doing radio interviews. He described the six-week window through which publishers determine if a book is a success (and worthy of marketing) or ignominiously abandoned to the limbo of remaindered books.

Wendy Mayer-Lochtefeld of Capitola Book Café characterized what happens to a book "on the ground" and how authors can successfully self-publish if they have a niche. Charlotte Cook of Komenar Publishing, a small press, compared four methods of getting published. Many publishers want to hear the "pitch," she says, and assess how authors are equipped to market their books.

Santa Cruz poet Robert Sward has had 30 books published, including God Is in the Cracks and The Much Married Man. He was enthusiastic about new opportunities to build an audience on the Internet, citing the free downloads of Billy Collins (U.S. Poet Laureate 2001-03) and the success of the online Poetry Daily (poems.com), which has had 95 million visitors.

Agent Elizabeth Pomada encouraged authors to join writers groups to get the feedback that will make their work impeccable before it's sent to an agent or publisher.

The panelists agreed that nonfiction books are easier to market but, though the fiction market is tiny, compelling literature still finds an audience and a place on the bookshelves. Cook advised the audience to adopt the attitude of "polite audacity," reminding them to be nice, as publishers don't want to take on authors who are guaranteed to be headaches to work with.

In the audience was Denise Ward, writer of the "Around Aptos" column for the Mid-County Post, looking for tips to "get me going" to produce a book for people preparing to live overseas. Helen Garvey, already a successful writer and filmmaker, was seeking tips from the panelists because "the publishing industry is changing." Her first book, How to Fix Your Bicycle, was produced on a quirk but "supported me for umpteen years," she said.  Children's bookseller Safiya Bonaventura sought insight from literary agents. Sally Jorgenson is looking for a publisher for her biography of her late husband, Terry Brickley.

The audience was undeterred by the obstacles the panelists described. A writers group formed on the spot.

"Santa Cruz is a very creative place," said Nabil Ghachem, Grants Program coordinator of the Cultural Council and presenter of the panel. "Its artists are entrepreneurial. They don't wait for permission; they just do it."


Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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