Local orchardists, private waste haulers would be affected
By Marcy Stamper
Orchardists, waste haulers and Okanogan County Public Works staff are scrambling to prepare for a quarantine that could be imposed on the Methow Valley in early September to control the apple maggot.
The quarantine would require apple growers to be certified that their crop is free of the destructive pest before they can sell fruit on the wholesale market or transport it outside the quarantined area — including through Pateros and Wenatchee.
The quarantine would most likely increase costs for the county’s solid-waste program and for private trash haulers like WasteWise Methow. And it could be a hassle for everyone in the Methow, since yard waste would have to be segregated from other garbage and all home-grown fruits and vegetables — not just apples — would no longer be accepted at the Twisp transfer station.
Under a quarantine, commercial orchardists would have to get certification from the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) that their fruit is pest-free before they could transport it outside the quarantine area or sell it wholesale.
Backyard growers would not be permitted to take their fruit outside the quarantine at all, unless the fruit was cooked or processed. It’s not clear what the impact would be on small growers who sell apples at the Twisp farmers market.
A quarantine was recommended by a WSDA working group earlier this year. WSDA is accepting public comment about the proposed quarantine and has scheduled public meetings in July.
The proposed quarantine would extend from the Lower Gold Creek Bridge north to the Canadian border, with the eastern boundary running through the Loup Loup summit. It would extend to the western edge of the county, butting up against existing quarantines in Whatcom and Skagit counties. No quarantine would be imposed on the rest of Okanogan County.
For orchardists who sell in the Seattle area, when the North Cascades Highway is open there is no issue with transporting fruit, since virtually all of Western Washington is also under a quarantine. “But once it closes, we have to go through Wenatchee. This has a great potential to impact our business,” said John Richardson, co-owner of Booth Canyon Orchard, which sells fresh apples and pears at three weekly farmers markets in Seattle from September through January or February.
Controlling apple maggot is a priority for the state’s apple industry — the largest in the country — since infestation could seriously affect the domestic and overseas market.
Dave Schulz, who grows apples in Twisp and sells the majority of his fresh fruit abroad, said there is already extensive screening both in orchards and warehouses. “If the maggot is in the core, it could contaminate a foreign country’s fruit industry,” said Schulz.
Washington produces about two-thirds of the U.S. apple crop, and Okanogan County’s production is the third-highest in the state, according to the 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture.
“Backyard growers need to take action, or our product in Okanogan County could be in jeopardy — it’s serious,” said Schulz.
WSDA analyzed the impact of a quarantine on local businesses and found there are five orchards within the proposed quarantine. Because all are small businesses, WSDA called the economic impact “inherently disproportionate.”
Richardson and Schulz say the biggest threat comes from people with backyard trees and from the hundreds of abandoned trees around the valley. Professional growers scrutinize their orchards and apply protective spray, but backyard growers may not be knowledgeable or conscientious.
A quarantine would have a smaller impact on local cider producers, since processing destroys the apple maggot.
Apple-maggot flies have been found in the Methow Valley for years. In the past few years, the number of adult flies in the Methow has grown, with dozens caught in traps set by WSDA.
Agency inspectors hoped they could eradicate the pest through aggressive control and postponed recommending a quarantine, according to WSDA. But in 2017, they discovered larvae in hawthorn berries, a native tree that is also a host for the pest. That indicated that “eradication was no longer an option and that a quarantine of the Methow Valley would be necessary to protect growers in the remaining pest free area,” said WSDA in the proposed rule.
Apple-maggot flies lay eggs beneath the skin of the apples or berries. After they hatch, the larvae eat the fruit and then drop to the ground to pupate. Pupa overwinter in soil and hatch as adult flies in the spring or early summer.
Trash impacts unclear
“We’re trying to get WSDA to confirm the definition of green waste that can’t be transported,” said Ben Rough, administrative officer for Okanogan County Public Works. “It’s difficult, because we have to inform people.”
“The tricky part is, we don’t have a list,” said Casey Bouchard, general manager of WasteWise, which provides curbside pick-up for trash for 1,100 residential and 300 commercial customers. “It’s been challenging to get real clear, specific, direct, unequivocal answers from the state,” said Bouchard, who was first contacted by WSDA only about two months ago.
Rough has tentative confirmation from WSDA that the Twisp transfer station will accept woody debris, yard waste, soil and commercial produce. But the county would still need a system for processing those materials. People would have to compost homegrown fruit and vegetables themselves, said Rough.
“From now on, we have to consider MGW [municipal green waste] is a restricted waste, similar to asbestos, car batteries, etc.,” said Rough in a fact sheet about the proposed quarantine.
Although the county is looking at several processing options, none could be in place by September, said Rough. One solution would be a separate bin at the Twisp transfer station for woody debris and yard waste, which would have to be heat-treated before it could be transported to the landfill in Okanogan, which is outside the proposed quarantine.
The county is also looking at stockpiling woody debris at a county gravel pit in the Methow and then chipping it. The state Department of Ecology is testing a heat-treatment process for green waste, said Rough.
Nevertheless, any solution would take time for permitting and construction, said Rough. “No matter what we do, it’s going to be expensive — it means additional staff and machinery,” he said.
Composting: a costly option
WSDA wants green waste to be composted, but composting is so expensive that the county would have to raise dump fees considerably, said Rough.
“If a compost facility could work anywhere, it would be the Methow Valley, but it would cost more than $1 million to build it right,” he said. “It seems out of reach, even for the Methow.”
A feasibility study conducted about six years ago about a green-waste composting program in the Methow found the biggest obstacle was scale, since the population is too small to make it economically viable, said Bouchard.
Bouchard has talked with groups in the area who might be interested in helping launch a composting program. “It would have to be kind of like the way we do everything here — a partnership between a local nonprofit and a profit-making company,” he said.
Composting has its own permitting and environmental requirements. “It’s not a clean, odorless process,” said Bouchard. There’s also been research into a digester, a completely enclosed technology that rapidly turns green waste to compost.
WasteWise faces an additional dilemma because one of its weekly routes goes from Twisp almost all the way to Pateros. About 80 of the 400 customers on that route live beyond the southern border of the quarantine zone. “A separate route is not economically feasible and, carbon-footprint-wise, it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” said Bouchard. Bouchard hopes that containing waste in the truck before reaching the pest-free zone will comply with the quarantine.
In an economic analysis of the impact on WasteWise, WSDA said, “Costs to the private hauler will be more than minor…. Customers … will be required to segregate green waste. This may cause discontent among customers which could ultimately lead to a loss of sales.”
WasteWise is not permitted to simply raise rates, said Bouchard. The company would have to absorb the impact for a year and then submit a request to the state for approval, he said. The county could potentially raise tipping fees in Twisp or countywide, said Rough.
If approved, the quarantine would be adopted on Aug. 6. It would go into effect Sept. 5. If a quarantine is approved, alerts will go out to residents from the county, WSDA and WasteWise. The state emphasizes education, said Karla Salp, public engagement specialist for WSDA.
“The sooner we can start making people aware this is coming, the better chance we have to implement something — and not be out of compliance right off the bat,” said Bouchard. “From Day 1, we said we would process it and do it the right way,” said Rough.
WSDA is taking public comment on the proposed quarantine through July 23 at firstname.lastname@example.org. There is a public hearing on July 19 at 10 a.m. in the commissioners’ auditorium in Okanogan, plus one in Olympia and one in Yakima.
For more information, visit agr.wa.gov/LawsRules/Rulemaking.