By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog
RUSTON, La. — The peach orchards at Mitcham Farms, near the north Louisiana city of Ruston, have survived winter freezes, droughts and dangerous hail storms, but they evidently will not survive the Environmental Protection Agency.
The family-owned business, established in 1946 and featured in tourism magazines, is Louisiana’s largest peach orchard according to its website, but owner Joe Mitcham expects he’ll close in only a few years.
The federal government’s 2005 ban on methyl bromide, a chemical used to treat diseased peach trees, has really given him no choice. Most of his trees won’t survive without it.
Many of Mitcham’s trees have already died.
The EPA claims using this chemical threatens the earth’s ozone layer.
Mitcham told Watchdog the federal regulations have also forced him to downsize his business from 60 employees to 20.
“Well, with more acreage to use we would be prospering,” Mitcham said. “We had the potential to be a million-dollar business, but definitely not now.”
Mitcham said it’s now difficult to cover business expenses. While describing himself as upset and frustrated by the situation, Mitcham, who inherited the business from his father, is heading into retirement.
Mitcham’s children are not interested in taking on the family business, but even if they were, the land, encumbered by the EPA regulations, can no longer grow peaches – or even other types of fruit, he said. Those regulations make selling the business almost impossible.
EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones told Watchdog on Wednesday that many of the agency’s experts on the subject of methyl bromide are “out of the office this week.”
The peach orchards remain a huge tourism draw, Mitcham said.
“This will have an impact with the loss of jobs and the loss of income of selling the fruit here because we have so many customers coming from out of state, especially Texas,” Mitcham said. “Half the vehicles I saw coming through here on July 4 were Texas license plates. The loss of that economy coming through Ruston will be pretty major.”
Ruston resident Laura Jones is among those upset about Mitcham’s predicament.
Jones told Watchdog she went to the farm often growing up, and she now takes her children there.
“The reason more people aren’t in arms over the farm closing is because every time it’s been talked about before was because it seemed to be far away in the future, and not imminent,” Jones said.
“It’s such a symbol of our area, and it’s such a part of our history and it’s such a shame that it would go away. I don’t know what that would mean for our Peach Festival.”
Ruston’s annual Peach Festival has been held every summer for the past 50 years, with at least a little help from the Mitcham family.
This year’s festival had a $5 million impact on the city of about 22,000 people, said Ruston Lincoln Chamber of Commerce President Judy Copeland.
Copeland told Watchdog some people call her agency confused about whether the festival will continue.
Mitcham, though, doesn’t generally bring his own peaches to the festival as he does plenty of business at his farm with the peaches he is still able to grow. The festival will, of course, continue, Copeland said.
“Still, though, we’re losing a big part of our community,” Copeland said. “It’s like losing a family member.”
Mitcham told Watchdog he hasn’t pursued any legal remedies.
Agricultural experts are currently pondering the benefits of an alternative to methyl bromide, but, if approved, no one will sell it until long after Mitcham’s farm is gone, he said.
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