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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Inslee’s apple misstep indicates he’s out of touch with agriculture

UPDATED: Wed., Sept. 16, 2020

By Sue Lani Madsen The Spokesman-Review

“Governor Inslee and the Apple Maggots” sounds like a name for a rock band.

Bless his heart, Gov. Jay Inslee meant well, but it would have been better if he’d stayed home. His post-wildfire condolence visits to Eastern Washington have endangered the health of Washington’s apple industry.

Inslee brought a box of personally picked apples from the governor’s garden to Malden on Sept. 10 and to Bridgeport on Sept. 12. He also delivered a lovely basket of the homegrown tree fruit to an Omak retirement home.

According to an announcement from Douglas County, “apples that were delivered to Omak have tested positive for apple maggot larvae. Thurston County is currently an Apple Maggot quarantine area but Douglas County is not.”

“A lot of people are not aware of the apple maggot quarantine and what it means,” said Karla Salp, public engagement specialist with the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

The apple maggot quarantine was declared in the 1980s in Washington . The infestation started up the Interstate 5 corridor but has since crept into the east slopes of the Cascades, including parts of Okanogan, Kittitas and Yakima counties. All of Spokane County and the southeastern corner of Lincoln County are under quarantine. Whitman County is, or was, pest-free.

WSDA has a trapping program to monitor for apple maggots under a strategy directed by the Apple Maggot Working Group in partnership with Washington State University researchers and apple industry representatives. When apple maggots are found, the working group determines what treatment to apply, up to and including tree removal.

The quarantine has been in place for so long, the signs might be easy to overlook unless you play the highway alphabet game regularly. You can always count on the apple maggot warning signs for a “Q.” Apparently the governor doesn’t play that game, because the posted warnings also can come with a misdemeanor charge and a fine of up to $1,000.

Salp said WSDA rarely imposes fines but relies on education.

“On an individual level, the scenario we think of most often is someone on the West Side picking apples, camping in Eastern Washington and tossing the core or a bad apple into nature, which is the worst thing. Native hawthorns are a major host plant, which would allow them to establish and spread,” Salp said.

According to Becci Piepel, solid waste director for Douglas County, they have taken custody of the Omak basket but are “desperately seeking” the apples Inslee presented to Bridgeport. They were last seen at the Bridegport Four Square Church on Saturday. Douglas County has announced there is “reason to believe that they may have been dumped in a local orchard or transported with other, non-contaminated apples from the area.” She hopefully asked if I knew where they were.

Bridgeport Mayor Janet Conklin said she’d last seen them in the governor’s arms as he headed up the street.

“He was so happy he’d grown them in his own garden and was going to take them up to the church,” Conklin said. Piepel feared someone had taken the box of infested apples to feed wildlife, the worst-case scenario for spread into the ecosystem.

Besides introducing a noxious pest into pest-free counties, the gift was redundant in an apple-growing region. Cases of bottled water would have been more useful. A major problem facing orchardists in September is not a lack of apples, but a lack of apple pickers. It makes Inslee look particularly out of touch with agriculture, the second largest category of exports in Washington’s trade-dependent economy. Presumably, that was not the intention.

The governor’s office provided the following response to the uproar in apple country:

“Last week, Trudi and I wanted to express comfort for the communities suffering from devastating fires. When I visited some of these areas, I took some apples we picked from our tree in Olympia. We regret this mistake. This is a good reminder of the importance of awareness around apple quarantine.

“We appreciate the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s efforts to help recover these apples and we are assisting to help make that happen,” the governor’s statement said.

This incident is a major teachable moment across the state. Under Washington law, fruit regulated under the apple maggot quarantine includes “all fresh fruit of apple (including crab apple), cherry (except cherries that are commercial fruit), hawthorn, pear (except pears that are commercial fruit from CA, ID, OR, UT, and WA), plum, prune, and quince.”

If you want to share homegrown tree fruit and you live in a quarantine area, bake a pie.

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