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EPA regs likely to kill 68-year-old Louisiana peach orchard

By   /   July 10, 2014  /   News  /   No Comments

Photo by Chris Butler

DYING: North Louisiana business owner Joe Mitcham stands in front of what’s left of his peach orchard, ravaged by a particular fungus. A product exists to fix the problem and save his business, but the federal government has phased it out of the market on the grounds that it threatens the ozone layer.


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.

Photo courtesy of Heather Ekblad

PEACHY KEEN?: A collection of peaches gathered from north Louisiana.

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.

PEACH PERFECT: Ruston, Louisiana's economy thrives on tourism for its yearly Peach Festival and homegrown peaches. Now, because of EPA rules, many peaches at the festival are imported from other states.

PEACH PERFECT: Ruston, Louisiana’s economy thrives on tourism for its yearly Peach Festival and homegrown peaches. Now, because of EPA rules, many peaches at the festival are imported from other states.

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.

According to the EPA’s website, methyl bromide is a toxic substance. 

The United States and 26 other countries agreed in 1987, through an international treaty, to phase the product out of the market.

Contact Christopher Butler at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org or follow him and submit story ideas on his official Facebook page.

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Chris is an investigative reporter for Tennessee Watchdog. He has 13 years experience in the journalism field working with the Beacon Center of Tennessee, the Ruston Daily Leader, the Wise County Messenger, Highlands Today and the Martin County, Florida edition of the Hometown News. Chris is an award-winning writer and photographer whose work has been recognized by Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh and FOX News, among others. Because of Chris' stories, the Washington Post named Tennessee Watchdog one of the nation's best political blogs. Chris can be reached on Twitter @cdbutler1204 and by email at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org.