Healdsburg grape grower raises alarm over Northwestern Pacific Railroad’s herbicide spraying
At the edge of Bob Dempel’s vineyard along the railroad tracks near Healdsburg, the leaves on dozens of vines appear badly deformed.
A little more than 1,200 pounds, or a half-ton, of plump and juicy pinot noir grapes that Dempel harvested from the vines this week were stacked nearby in trays, the fruit wasting in the summer sun. Dempel, 79, said he is planning to torch the fruit.
The longtime North Coast grower alleges his crop loss was due to spraying for weed control along the adjacent railroad tracks running south of Bailhache Avenue, near the intersection with Healdsburg Avenue. The tracks in that area are maintained by the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, the freight operator that in 2011 resumed service along the line, although farther to the south.
The office of the Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner is investigating a complaint Dempel filed with the county about the spraying. “This has consumed my life,” the grape grower said.
The case could have far-reaching implications for railroad operators and for farmers and ranchers who have property along the tracks. Rail activities, including weed abatement, could come under greater scrutiny depending on the outcome of the investigation.
“Absolutely it’s a concern going forward,” said Tony Linegar, the county’s agricultural commissioner. “Obviously, if the evidence shows the rail line is responsible, we’re going to have to review the materials they used and the method they used to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
The contractor who applied the herbicide on March 24 did so under contract with the Northwestern Pacific Railroad.
“From my point of view, it’s a bad situation,” said John Williams, Northwestern Pacific’s president. “We still don’t know what really happened.”
Dempel said three other growers near the Bailhache Avenue vineyard suffered damage from the suspected herbicide contamination. Dempel would not identify them.
Linegar confirmed that the county’s investigation has grown to include several grape growers, but county officials declined to name the growers, citing a desire to maintain confidentiality for parties contacting the Ag Commissioner’s Office.
Dempel agreed to speak publicly about the case this week only after he finished harvesting about 20 tons of grapes from his vineyard and delivered the fruit to Bogle Vineyards.
Dempel said lab tests he commissioned showed the grapes to be free of unwanted chemical residues. But he fears lingering fallout, including potential economic losses, once people discover that one of his vineyards may have been hit by a chemical spray.
He said he and his wife, Shirley, “worked our lifetimes to develop a brand, and in one fell swoop, we are having to defend ourselves, at great cost.”
Showing off his vineyard, Dempel this week walked along the railroad tracks to reach his property, where he stopped to show grape leaves that appeared to be cupped and curled.
Documents Dempel obtained from the Ag Commissioner’s Office show that Paul Washburn with Davis-based AgriChem Services, Inc. sprayed a combination of herbicides in the area of the vineyard March 24. The chemicals included glyphosate, commonly known as Roundup, and clopyralid, also known as Stinger.
A handwritten notation on the work order stated, “Do not drift onto grapes.”
Reached by phone Thursday, Washburn confirmed the March 24 spraying. But he would not say what method was used to apply the chemicals.