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  • 23 Jul 2014

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Xerces beefs up pollinator protection

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Don Sturm holds a strand of year-old black raspberry plantings at his Corbett farm.Four years ago, Don Sturm had a conundrum.

On his four Portland-area farms he had acres of black raspberries — highly prized for their super antioxidant properties — that weren’t yielding much of a crop. They’re one of the hardest berries to pollinate since bees aren’t as attracted to them.

So Sturm began working with an outreach worker from the Portland-based Xerces Society to convert the unused parts of his fields into wildflower meadows, which are prime habitat to attract bees and other pollinators.

Even with as little as half an acre of meadow planted, the result was magical: a 30 percent higher yield of black raspberries.

“My hope is to get it higher than that, by putting in more native pollinator plantings and possibly bringing in more bees,” says Sturm, a third-generation farmer. “Pollination is a real key with berries. The more bees you have, the more production there is.”

At Sturm’s Corbett farm, his wildflowers will start to bloom in May. The black raspberries will show in July for their three-week-long season.

“There’s a vital role in what we do,” he says.

Oregon produces 3 million pounds of black raspberries each year, supplying 98 percent of the worldwide market. Each year, Sturm harvests about 100,000 pounds of those black raspberries — 3 percent of the world market — which he freeze-dries and grinds into powder.

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - The Xerces Society of Portland is working with farmers and others to protect bees. Legislation that would have banned some insecticides that are harmful to pollinators failed to make it through the 2014 legislative session, but Xerces officials say they plan to try again to get the legislation passed.Ninety percent of those sales go to cancer patients across the country. In its freeze-dried and concentrated form, the antioxidants are six times more potent than any other berry, Sturm says.

University studies of his berries are underway, and some have shown that the berries slow the growth of breast, cervical, colon and esophageal cancers.

Come late spring, Sturm’s farms are lush with new habitat: everything from the yellow and white Douglas meadowfoam, pink sea blush, purple lacy phacelia and bright California poppies.

He uses herbicides for weeds, but does not use insecticides on his crops, since his berries have to be clean for use as “nutraceuticals.”

Instead, he practices integrated pest management — using minute pirate bugs to control the spotted wing drosophila, the berries’ biggest pest.

“We’re trying to treat our native pollinators as well as we can,” Sturm says. “We try to stay away from anything that hurts the bees.”

Scott Black, Xerces Society executive director, is looking forward to more successes like at Sturm’s farm. In the next few years, Xerces’ goal is to get a million acres of pesticide-free habitat restored. “I think it can be done,” Black says. “I really believe we have a movement happening.”

Nurseries block pesticide bill

Until then, the folks at the Xerces Society are focused on adding the meat back into a pollinator protection bill passed by the Legislature in February.

The original version of House Bill 4139 would have restricted the use of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, which conservationists say are highly toxic to pollinators. It would have required people to obtain a license before using neonicotinoids, and read information on pollinator protection to get the license.

“We find it common sense,” Black says. “We feel it’s the minimum we should do.”

As amended and signed into law, however, the bill creates a 10-person task force charged with studying the issue and what’s been done in other jurisdictions.

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Corbett farmer Don Sturm grows black raspberries that are often used for treatments of cancer patients. His farm is among many in the region helping pollinators by avoiding insecticides and other harmful chemicals.The Oregon Association of Nurseries was the primary opponent. Jeff Stone, the association’s executive director, submitted testimony that “the science is dubious that banning this class of chemicals would have any positive effect.”

Conservationists liken that tactic to the same used by Big Tobacco or in climate change debates.

“We don’t have a smoking gun either way,” says Mace Vaughan, Xerces pollination program director, about the ongoing studies on neonicotinoids.

“There’s no evidence this is truly safe,” Vaughan says. “But the studies that are used now to demonstrate the use of these products on the landscape is safe is based on treatments to an acre or two. The honeybees are foraging over 25,000 acres.”

Oregon conservationists don’t want to wait years for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take action restricting neonicotinoids, Black says.

There is much cause for alarm. “Fifty-four percent of the honeybees died last winter in Iowa,” Vaughan says. “To me that indicates there’s a risk we need to be thinking about.”