Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Cast: Bitter the Fruit

Bitter the Fruit

Produced, written, directed, and starring

JILL TURNER Assistant director

The Cast

TIM CLARK as Joe Donovan
BECKY JOHNSON as Ellen Graydon
JILL TURNER as Mary Glaznow
A. BLINKEN as Chaz Powell
HUGO ARANA as Jesus Gutierrez
MIKE BIRCH as the Ag Commissioner, Dick Needham

LINDSEY GOULD Lighting and Sound
HUGO ARANA Set assembly and Management
GEORGIA ANNE SEARS Cover art: "Strawberry Fields Forever"(detail)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

'Bitter the Fruit' throws spotlight on farm workers' plight

NOTE TO READER: Ms. McKee has switched the names of the two teachers. Jill Turner plays the younger, Berkeley-graduate teacher. I play the older teacher. --Becky Johnson, ed.


As I walked into a standing-room-only matinee of "Bitter the Fruit" last Sunday at the Broadway Playhouse, I turned to the house manager and said, "You guys don't need my review. Look at this!" And as I did look, I noticed it was the most ethnically diverse audience I have ever seen at a theatrical production in Santa Cruz.

Author/director Nicholas Constant describes the play as being about "People, Pesticides and Profit," with the subtitle; "Strawberries, the Ugly Truth." It is based on the true story of how a coalition of activists, union organizers and workers campaigned to get the chemical methyl bromide banned.

The afternoon began with UC Santa Cruz graduate Valentina de la Fuerta, an advocate for food justice who also plays Maria in the play, singing the "Weeping Woman" song, her father accompanying her on guitar. He explained that the song expressed the sorrow of postpartum depression. After that, Anna Lopez, professor at De Anza Community College and San Jose State University, gave us statistics regarding the state of farmworkers' health that were so chilling I teared up.

The play opens with student reporter Joe Donovan jogging and coming across Maria, collapsed in a field. She is too ill to go out to pick, and her crew has left her behind. She is undocumented and won't go to a clinic, so Joe gets her to a school. At the school, the nurse is quite busy with the children who have been poisoned by the previous night's leakage of methyl bromide from under the plastic covers of the strawberry fields. Two teachers, played by UCSC theater student Jill Turner as the older, wiser, more resigned of the two, and Becky Johnson of local Community Television, as the young, fiery Berkeley graduate, bemoaning the situation. This is the "Just the facts, ma'am" scene.

Following this is the "Gaia scene," where Maria tells her story and the ecology of the situation is explained. Joe interviews the agriculture commissioner, played by Mike Burch, who is smug and practiced at rattling off answers. There is some well-written sparring between the two in the "Bastards!" scene. At the home of a huge grower, who is about to throw a lavish spread for politicians and the press, Joe interviews Chaz Powell, played by Abe Lincoln yep in the "Patronizing Fat Cat Bigot" scene, who summons his field manager, Jesus, played by Argentinian Hugo Aceves, who delivers the propaganda he has been taught in the "Back on the Plantation" scene, followed by the "What Would Steinbeck Do?" scene.

The acting was somewhat uneven at the start of the play, but by the time the 1-hour, 45-minute ! first act was over, it had settled in. The second act is quite short. This is a benefit for the health needs of farmworkers' children. Bring friends who can afford the full $20!

if you go

'bitter the fruit'
written and directed by: Nicholas Constant
presented by: Performing Arts West and Workers' Theater
when: Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.
where: Broadway Playhouse, 526 Broadway, Santa Cruz
cost: $9 to $20 general; $5 to $9 for low-income
details: 234-2067

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Peace Resource Center presents "Bitter the Fruit"

This piece can be found online here.


Saturday, February 19, 8:00 pm & Sunday February 20, 3:00 pm (matinee), Friday, February 25, 8:00 pm & Saturday, February 26, 8:00 pm: Theater Play Tackles Green Issue: Methyl Bromide/Iodide
Current protests against the use of Methyl Iodide on strawberry fields had their origins in a similar battle versus Methyl Bromide in the 90's. A new theater play "Bitter the Fruit" tells the story of two brave women teachers who campaigned to get M.B. removed from fields adjacent to their classrooms. The Class One toxin menaced the health of students.

The play also relates the struggle of strawberry pickers to become a recognized workforce under the U.F.W. (United Farm Workers) banner. One young Latina emerges as a natural leader, gaining the respect of a local 'Anglo' journalist. Gradually admiration turns to affection between the earthy (also fiery) 'campesina' and the cool-minded ecologist. With touching humor and bold conflicts, "Bitter the Fruit" gives an accurate historic picture of a determined local movement that combined environmental and labor activists. To some degree the 'green' campaign did win safety improvements in the application of Methyl Bromide fumigant, and a large section of strawberry pickers did win a union contract.

Former Community TV host Nicholas Whitehead wrote the drama, based on his inside knowledge as a member of the dynamic campaigns. Drawn from interviews done

Mural: "Strawberry Fields" by Kathleen Croscetti

at the time, his characters of Ag. Commissioner and Big Grower get to say their piece in a realistic manner, defending the practice of synthetic chemical agriculture as the only means to feed an expanding world.

The production of "Bitter the Fruit" is a presentation of West Performing Arts done by Workers Theater.
Part of the proceeds help fund the health needs of farmworker children.
General admission $9.00 upwards ; Students and Low Income $5.00 ( at the door, or reserve: 831.234.2067 )
Broadway Playhouse ( Santa Cruz Art League ), Broadway at Ocean St.,
Santa Cruz. Blogsite:

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Terminator: Schwarzenegger's Killer Pesticide


Wikimedia Commons--found online here in The Atlantic.

In the days before he left office, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration planted a chemical time bomb in California strawberry fields that, if not defused, could cause cancer, thyroid toxicity, permanent neurological damage, and miscarriages, according to 54 distinguished chemists, including five Nobel laureates (PDF).

The chemical in question is called methyl iodide (or iodomethane) and is marketed under the trade name MIDAS by Arysta LifeScience, a Tokyo-based firm that is the world's largest privately held agrichemical company. Methyl iodide is a fumigant that is injected into fields before planting to kill insects, microorganisms, fungi, weed seeds—virtually every living organism.

Claiming that it can also kill the humans who handle it or are unfortunate enough to live in the vicinity of farms (PDF), a group of farm workers and environmental health organizations filed suit late last year to reverse California's Department of Pesticide Regulation's approval of methyl iodide's use.

"We are going to court to challenge the last-minute approval of this cancer-causing pesticide," said Paul Towers, director of Pesticide Watch Education Fund, a public health and environmental organization that is one of the plaintiffs. "The department did this despite the state's own Scientific Review Committee's unanimous warning that it was too toxic to be let out of the laboratory."

The suit claims that the Department of Pesticide Regulation violated the California Environmental Quality Act, Birth Defects Prevention Act, and Pesticide Contamination Prevention Act.

But the plaintiffs are also taking aim at the tactics officials used to get the approval through before the arrival of a new, perhaps less agribusiness-friendly administration. Realizing they hadn't left themselves enough time to fully implement the approval process before Governor Jerry Brown was sworn in, they declared an "emergency." Under the law, registration of pesticides for restricted use can be fast-tracked in California in emergency situations.

"They created their own emergency," said Greg Loarie, an attorney at Earthjustice, a public-interest law firm that is handling the case. "They didn't have to register methyl iodide. They could have waited; they just didn't want to. So our lawsuit claims that the purported emergency is bogus."

Interest in methyl iodide has risen as a result of the phasing-out of methyl bromide, chemical agriculture's fumigant du-jour until it began to be eliminated in the 1990s because of the severe damage it caused to the stratosphere's ozone layer. In terms of human health, however, the changeover represented a leap from the frying pan into the fire.

When the Bush-era Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was considering allowing methyl iodide's use as a pesticide, the 54 chemists mentioned earlier in this post sent the agency a detailed letter that was at times scathing and at others pleading (PDF). "Agents like methyl iodide are extraordinarily well-known cancer hazards in the chemical community," they wrote. "Because of methyl iodide's high volatility and water solubility, broad use of this chemical in agriculture will guarantee substantial releases to air, surface waters, and ground water, and will result in exposures for many people."

Sam Fromartz: More on Methyl Bromide
Suzanne Merkelson: Links to ADHD
Barry Estabrook: Propaganda

The researchers concluded: "It is astounding then that the Office of Pesticide Programs is working to legalize one of the more toxic chemicals used in manufacturing into the environment."

It's worth noting that when scientists want to create experimental cancer cells in the laboratory they use methyl iodide.

But warnings from members of the scientific community—even Nobel Prize winners—went unheard at the EPA, which cleared the way for methyl iodide's use in the 46 states that don't have their own environmental protection units. Of the four states that do, New York and Washington refused to allow it. Florida and California have given the chemical their blessing.

As part of its approval of the new fumigant, Florida required that Arysta monitor air and groundwater quality near sites where it was applied. The early results showed potentially dangerous levels of the chemical and its byproducts in the air and water.

For the time being, California's decision to approve the chemical is something of a moot point. Fumigants are not typically applied during the winter. Come spring, Loarie is not ruling out using a legal injunction to stop methyl iodide's use until the Department of Pesticide Regulation obeys the law.

Correction: This piece originally included several references to methyl bromide when it should have referred to methyl iodide.

Monday, January 24, 2011


We need to fill seats for our show and make money for farmworker children's health needs. Please let us know about any newsletters, websites, e-mailing networks, and meetings where we might make an announcement. Any way that we can get publicity.

You might also be able to refer us to potential financial supporters, businesses or services that might take an ad. in the program, and volunteer help (anything from outreach to nuts-and-bolts practical help - theater should be a community involvement). To help our outreach, request a pack of flyers and posters.

Call us : 831 - 234 - 2067 (Susan Russell) or e-mail - nicosuz @
We also have Our Blog :

FINANCIAL APPEAL - Theater is one of the most engaging ways to put across a message, but it's also expensive. Please consider being a Financial Sponsor to cover such costs as theatre rental, fees to Lighting technician, and publicity materials. We welcome advance contributions of any size.

Each sponsorship of fifty-five dollars upward includes two tickets to any of four show dates. Over seventy dollars includes four tickets. You may choose to donate specifically to enable low income workers to see this show. We regret Workers Theater Company is not a registered non-profit, so we cannot offer a tax benefit.

We plan to pass on 30 per cent of all ticket sales to a suitable fund providing health care to farmworker families. Your generosity helps us fulfill that task.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

In search of safe strawberry fields

Methyl Bromide being applied to a field.
Photo courtesy of

by Jennifer Parrish
From "Go Green"

If you like strawberries or live in a strawberry growing region, you may now have reason to worry.

On Dec. 1 of last year, the California State Department of Pesticide Regulation approved the use of methyl iodide, a pesticide officially classified as a carcinogen under Proposition 65. Methyl iodide, also known as MeI, is slated as a replacement for the ozone-depleting methyl bromide for use on our region's valuable strawberry crop, as well as a variety of other flowers, fruits and vegetables.

While admitting its toxicity, regulators claim that "tough restrictions" will ensure the pesticide is safely applied. These restrictions include a permitting process and the use of buffer zones and tarps for containment. However, findings by the Department of Pesticide Regulation's own Scientific Review Committee cast doubt on the effectiveness of these strategies. In a report regarding the health risks of methyl iodide use, the committee states:

"Based on the data available, we know that methyl iodide is a highly toxic chemical and we expect that any anticipated scenario for the agricultural or structural fumigation use of this agent would result in exposures to a large number of the public and thus would have a significant adverse impact on the public health. Due to the potent toxicity of the methyl iodide, its transport in and the ultimate fate in the environment, adequate control of human exposure would be difficult, if not impossible."

Furthermore, Dr. John Froines, chairman of the committee and professor at the School of Public Health at UCLA, called methyl iodide "without question one of the most toxic chemicals on earth." Indeed, the report cites as evidence the use of MeI as an agent to deliberately induce cancer in laboratory animal experiments.

Methyl iodide was first approved in 2007 by the Environmental Protection Agency for application nationwide. At that time, a group of scientists, including five Nobel laureates, came out in opposition to the EPA approval that resulted in the official listing of Mel as a pesticide. In a letter to the EPA, these scientists raised concerns about public health risks through contamination of airways, surface waters and underground water sources, especially to populations such as pregnant women, farmworkers, children, the elderly, even healthy adults living in agricultural areas.

"In addition to the potential for increased cancer incidence, U.S. EPA's own evaluation of the chemical also indicates that methyl iodide causes thyroid toxicity, permanent neurological damage, and fetal losses in experimental animals."

Concerned, a group of scientists, farmworkers and environmentalists are challenging California's ruling. On Dec. 30, Earthjustice and California Rural Legal Assistance filed a lawsuit against the state on behalf of Pesticide Action Network North America, United Farm Workers, Californians for Pesticide Reform, Pesticide Watch Education Fund, Worksafe, Communities and Children Advocated Against Pesticide Poisioning, and farmworkers Jose Hidalgo Ramon and Zeferina Estrada. It is their hope that upon taking office Gov. Jerry Brown will reverse the state's decision made under the Schwarzenegger administration.

Admittedly, methyl iodide is not indispensible to a healthy strawberry crop. In a December Huffington Post article, John Kirst, CEO of the Ventura County Farm Bureau, is quoted as stating, "The industry [isn't] going to go under without it, but it's important to keep these tools available."

In fact, the Pesticide Action Network points to the success of Santa Cruz County's own Swanton Berry Farm -- an organic berry farm with a profitable business model-- as evidence that strawberries can be grown en masse without the use of fumigants

Among possible replacements for chemical fumigants, farmers in Idaho have been experimenting with adding mustard seed to their crop rotation. As a result they have both kept pests at bay and saved money. For more information, read the following article online at

Here's what you can do:

Interested in voicing your opposition to the use of methyl iodide? Sign the Pesticide Action Network's petition asking the EPA to rethink its position on methyl iodide at the following link:

You can also contact governor Brown's office to voice your concerns by calling 916 445-2841 or by sending a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown, c/o State Capitol, Suite 1173, Sacramento, CA 95814.

Jennifer Parrish writes a biweekly column for the Sentinel. Contact her at

Monday, January 17, 2011

Bitter the Fruit Playdates Announced

by Becky Johnson
Jan 17 2011

Santa Cruz, Ca. -- Producer, director, writer, Nicholas Whitehead's new play, Bitter the Fruit, which documents the struggle of two teachers, their students, and their worker parents against the use of the lethal and ozone-depleting fumigant, methyl bromide on area strawberry fields, will have its premier performance on February 19th, at 8:00PM at the Broadway Playhouse (formerly the Santa Cruz Art League) on Broadway, near Ocean St. Three more performances are planned.

Saturday Feb 19 -- 8PM -- Opening night
Sunday Feb 20 -- Afternoon matinee

Friday, Feb 25th at 8PM
Saturday, Feb 26th at 8 PM -- Final performance

Bitter the Fruit is being produced by the Workers' Theatre Company
in association with West Performing Arts

For more information call: (831) 475-2012 or e-mail nicosuz( @ )

Friday, January 14, 2011

About Bitter the Fruit

by Nick Whitehead
January 14, 2011

The story of the play is based on actual struggles of teachers, parents and students against Methyl Bromide use on strawberry fields next to school campuses. Simultaneously there was a huge Union-organizing drive by the

A Strawberry Picker photo courtesy LA Times

United Farm Workers of America. Strawberry pickers sought collective bargaining rights to raise their family incomes and provide their families with guaranteed health insurance.

These labor and environmental demands, heavily resisted by the Strawberry Industry, drew prominent celebrities to Watsonville, including Hollywood actor Martin Sheen and Robert Kennedy Jr. Local clergy chained themselves in protest to the gates of one big employer. Eventually, top U.S. Labor officials flew in from Washington D.C., joined by Rainbow Coalition figure Jesse Jackson. A huge rally and march brought statewide prominence to the small agricultural town.

There were two final outcomes. On the Methyl Bromide front, growers started voluntarily withdrawing from proximity to school classrooms. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation commenced monitoring the "chemical drift" in air currents that threatened the health of local residents. The second outcome gave labor a big breakthrough when a purchase deal was arranged behind the scenes so that new progressive owners acquired the biggest berry grower. Within a year, the workforce voted to be unionized under the U.F.W.

The outcome was not so sanguine for the activist teachers intent on protecting their students. One was forced to leave, the other was transferred away from students she loved. These women had applied their conscience. The School District had retaliated.

In our story there is also a fictional budding romantic relationship between an Irish-American environmental scientist and a Latina "fraisera" (strawberry picker). But this possibility is not so fanciful. In the real-life struggle, a committed love relationship evolved between a leading UFW organizer and an Anglo woman journalist. In times of historic pressure and tumult, people find the comfort and affection they need.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Did you know that....

by Becky Johnson

January 7 2011

Santa Cruz, Ca. -- Did you know that Methyl Bromide, the Class 1 nerve gas and toxic fumigant used to sterilize soil prior to commercial strawberry plantings...

-- causes less than 1% of the ozone-depleting potential in the upper atmosphere of the world?
According to the California Strawberry Commission
-- has a half life of two years
-- is "natural" since it can also be found in natural sources like the ocean, wetlands and many plants.
-- was identified as an ozone-depleting substance in 1992 under the Montreal Protocol (an international treaty created in 1987 to protect the world’s ozone layer). The Protocol passed, along with an added-provision, a plan to phase-out the production of methyl bromide by 2005 in developed countries and 2015 in developing countries.

-- can still be applied to crops provided the countries wishing to continue its use, opt out by applying for a Critical Use Exemption (CUE). A country is deemed eligible if the country has conducted sufficient alternative research but is still unable to find a viable, safe alternative to methyl bromide."
-- California strawberry fruit production has been identified by the Parties to the Montreal Protocol as having critical needs for methyl bromide due to the lack of suitable alternatives, according to the California Strawberry Commission, and has been granted this exemption every year since 2005.
-- Growers threaten that "without effective alternatives, the loss of methyl bromide could make production unprofitable for a significant number of growers, resulting in fewer strawberries available."

May 16, 2002--The non-profit California Rural Legal Assistance settled its lawsuit suit against Monterey County and the state Department of Pesticide Regulation on behalf of a north Monterey County resident who alleged he was exposed to unsafe levels of the farm fumigant methyl bromide. The suit was filed last year after levels of the chemical were found to exceed state standards in air-quality tests taken near two schools- La Joya Elementary School in Salinas and Pajaro Middle School in northern Monterey County. Those tests found concentrations of 7.7 parts per billion far exceeding the state guideline for safe exposure for children.

-- is used primarily for profit? "Strawberry production is important to California's economy; the state leads the U.S. in strawberry production. In 2006, the fruit harvest yielded a value of $1.2 billion, and accounted for 79% of the total U.S. gross sales." --- from Science Daily Feb 9 2009

According to the University of California, the loss of methyl bromide would cost direct losses to California business up to $346 million per year, with 9,894 full-time jobs lost annually. --- Trical Inc.--a distributor and applicator of soil fumigation products

New Play due out by Nicholas Whitehead in 2011

by Becky Johnson
Jan 7 2011

Santa Cruz, Ca. -- Watch for a new, original play written and produced by local playwright, Nicholas Whitehead sometime this February. Bitter the Fruit tells a story of two teachers who find their classrooms surrounded by class one nerve gas and agripolitics. Based on the courageous stand taken by two Pajaro Valley teachers in the late '90's against the poisoning of the fields near their classrooms with methyl bromide (a toxic favorite of commercial strawberry growers), Bitter the Fruit shows how little has changed in the world of strawberry production considering methyl bromide was banned in 2005.

Previously, Whitehead has written and produced "Home Sweet Homeless," "Can't Stop the Clock" and was a co-producer on Club Cruz which aired at Community Television of Santa Cruz County.

For more information, contact Nick at : (831) 475-2012 Or e-mail Susan at