Waste haulers, orchardists express concerns about expected impacts
A quarantine of the Methow Valley to control the spread of apple maggot appears inevitable and has widespread support, despite questions about how the restrictions – particularly for trash and green waste – will be implemented.
The biggest concerns come from Okanogan County’s solid-waste disposal program and WasteWise Methow, the only private trash hauler in the Methow Valley. At a sparsely attended hearing in Okanogan on the proposed quarantine last Thursday (July 19), they said the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) should have consulted them earlier so they would have had time to plan for substantial and costly operational changes. If approved, the quarantine would be imposed in early September.
“We recognize the importance of containing the spread of apple maggot and support the apple industry. Our concern is that, while the rule has been in process a long time, we were only included recently. I feel the waste industry is being asked to sacrifice to keep another industry whole. That seems imbalanced,” Casey Bouchard, general manager of WasteWise Methow, told WSDA.
Although the quarantine has been under consideration for several years, it wasn’t proposed until this spring. Last year, inspectors found both adult flies and larvae, indicating that the population of the destructive pest is established and reproducing, according to Dan McCarthy, the agent with the Okanogan County Pest Board.
The quarantine would be imposed on the Methow Valley, from Gold Creek north to the Canadian border and east to the Loup Loup summit, but not on the rest of Okanogan County.
One of WasteWise’s routes goes through both the quarantine and pest-free zones, from Twisp almost to Pateros, said Bouchard. Of the almost 400 customers on that route, only 80 are in the 7.5-mile pest-free area below Gold Creek.
To serve these customers separately, the driver will have to travel about 24 miles without picking up any garbage, then drive back north to pick up quarantined garbage from Gold Creek to Twisp. Because the trucks collect trash only on the right side, they’ll empty bins heading north and then drive back down-valley to get the rest of the trash from customers on the west side of the road, said Bouchard.
WasteWise and the Okanogan County commissioners told WSDA that they were frustrated that there is still no clear definition of municipal green waste to clarify what would need to be separated from other trash. The Twisp transfer station is in the quarantine area, but since the landfill in Okanogan is not, green waste and produce wouldn’t be allowed in the landfill.
Bouchard said it appears that all home-grown fruit and vegetables and yard debris – grass clippings, branches and soil – will be banned from the transfer station. Commercial customers would have to segregate apples, plums, cherries, pears, crabapples and quince, he said.
Okanogan County Public Works has been exploring various solutions to keep the Methow Valley’s green waste out of the pest-free area. One possibility is to haul it over the North Cascades Highway to a landfill on the west side, said Ben Rough, administrative officer for Okanogan County Public Works. Virtually all of western Washington is under an apple-maggot quarantine, although this solution would require permission to truck the waste a short distance through Chelan County, which is pest-free, he said.
Rough estimated that hauling green waste over the pass would cost $1,000 per trip and necessitate two trips a week.
“WSDA has been very receptive and easy to communicate with, but we’re frustrated because we don’t know the final deal,” said Rough. “We just need more time.”
Even if the county is permitted to truck trash across the mountains, it’s unclear what they would do during the winter when the highway is closed, said Rough.
The county commissioners submitted comments supporting the quarantine, but asked WSDA to delay the quarantine for a year. They’d like WSDA to reconvene their working group to include the county and private trash haulers and to do more analysis of costs.
“This proposal shall cause disproportionate loss of revenue for WasteWise … Impacts must be analyzed,” said the commissioners.
State regulations require trash haulers to absorb additional costs for a year, after which they can apply for a rate increase. If approved, the increase would affect all WasteWise customers, said Bouchard.
The Washington State Tree Fruit Association supports the quarantine because further spread of the apple maggot could require growers to use costly pesticides, said Ranie Haas, the group’s director of regulatory and industry affairs, at the hearing. Apples are the leading agricultural commodity in the state – 7.5 billion pounds, valued at more than $2.4 billion in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Orchards and pests
“I support the quarantine. I don’t want any other orchards to face a quarantine,” John Richardson of Booth Canyon Orchards in Carlton told WSDA. Still, Richardson noted that only a few businesses – small orchards like his and WasteWise – will bear the burden.
Like other orchardists, Richardson is concerned primarily about abandoned apple trees. “Anyone with a backyard tree is a bigger risk to the fruit industry,” he said.
“We’re really pleased this situation is coming to light, because there are so many abandoned orchards and single trees in the valley,” said Jocelyn Murray in a separate interview last week. Jocelyn and her husband, Richard, grow 32 varieties of apples on 300 trees at Twisp River Organics.
“We have to be even more diligent with other trees and orchards that can be a host for all kinds of pests,” said Murray. Most of their customers at the Methow Valley Farmers Market in Twisp say they eat just a few apples from old, abandoned trees, but like to leave the rest for deer, bears and birds, said Murray.
Coddling moth – a statewide pest – has long been a more serious problem than apple maggot, said Murray.
When he bought an orchard two decades ago, John Sinclair said he knew a quarantine was inevitable because of the number of abandoned trees.
Sinclair Orchards has already been focusing on its Sixknot Cider, which is sold at retail and at Sixknot Taphouse in Winthrop. The apple-maggot quarantine reinforces that decision, since the quarantine applies only to fresh fruit, said Sinclair.
While they used to sell fresh apples and process the imperfect fruit for cider, as the threat of maggot increased, the wholesale market became less reliable, said Sinclair.
Last year, Sinclair got an email – just two days before a crew was scheduled to begin the apple harvest – alerting him that apple-maggot flies had been found in traps within half-a-mile of the Sinclair orchard. In the end, WSDA certified that the fruit wasn’t contaminated.
“But it was the last warning shot. You can’t operate under those conditions, where you’ve already paid for pruning, thinning, spraying and irrigation, and then, days before harvest, can’t export the fruit,” said Sinclair.
Other economic developments have also made operating a small orchard too uncertain. Tariffs imposed by the Trump administration on Mexico and China – Mexico is Washington’s largest export market for apples, by far – have forced processors to further reduce the price of apples sold domestically. In fact, it now costs less to buy organic fruit for cider from a processing house than to grow his own, said Sinclair.
The quarantine would be enforced through periodic inspections at the transfer station, said Jim Marra, pest program manager for WSDA. While the state’s rules provide for a $5,000 penalty for violations, WSDA enforces quarantines through outreach and education and has never levied a fine, he said.
With just a few days left in the public comment period, WSDA had received only one comment opposed to the quarantine.
Buck and Nancy Jorgensen, who operate Canyon Creek Ranch in Carlton, sell at the farmers market, a farm stand, and to grocery stores. The Jorgensens told WSDA they were concerned that the economic analysis didn’t include small orchards like theirs.
“Rather than slap a quarantine on such a large area, would it not be more helpful to place more traps over the proposed area in order to locate specifically where the problem area(s) are? How about making a more concerted effort at locating and removing so called abandoned orchards?” said the Jorgensens.
WSDA will issue its final decision on Aug. 6. The quarantine is currently scheduled to take effect on Sept. 5.
The Methow Conservancy, which hosts educational programs for the public, plans a presentation by the county’s pest-control agent on Sept. 4 to help educate people about apple maggot.
While the details are still not finalized, green waste will most likely be accepted at the transfer station, but it will have to be separated from other trash. People would be able to bring green waste to the transfer station as long as it is separated, but WasteWise Methow would no longer be able to collect green waste because it would be mixed in with other trash.