Monthly Archives: July 2015

Farming in Focus: June Blueberries

I have been up to my ears in blueberries lately. We have four well-established bushes in our yard that keep my family (and some friends) well stocked in blueberries for almost the entire summer. And, since Oregon produces nearly 40 million pounds of blueberries each  year, making our state the second largest producer of blueberries (after Michigan), I thought it was fitting to visit a real blueberry farm to see how it’s done on a MUCH larger scale than my backyard. So, a few weeks ago I drove down to Albany and visited Berries Northwest for June’s Farming in Focus. (I put off this post a few weeks in favor of the two-part sunscreen guest blogs.) I hope you enjoy and are inspired to go make a blueberry pie.

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Anne Krahmer is a 6th generation farmer and a 3rd generation blueberry farmer. Krahmer’s family grows blueberries on over 500 acres, 350 of which are in Albany, OR and the remainder are in Claskanie and St. Paul. Krahmer’s father started the operation in the 1990s and Krahmer grew up on the farm. She was hand picking berries at five years old and started on the berry picking machines at nine. Krahmer joined the business in 2009 after working in farm and ranch appraising in Salem for seven years. “I like this better,” she said. “It’s never the same and you never know what’s coming.” This year has been a difficult one because of the weather. I expected Krahmer’s operation to be booming because of the heat wave we’ve been having but she said it’s actually the opposite of that. The heat impacts the quality of the fruit; a lot of the bushes have been over-fruiting, meaning when it gets hot the plants puts lots of resources into making fruit, but then they don’t all ripen or the size of the fruit varies tremendously.

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About half of Krahmer’s production is picked by hand for the fresh market. Hand picking is the best way to guarantee the finest fruit, which is what is needed and expected for the fresh market, but with that comes the complications associated with managing migrant workers. Krahmer doesn’t know on any given day how many workers she’ll have show up to pick in the fields. “On Monday we had 50 people show up, the next day we had 38. By Wednesday it had dropped to 16. Thursday we were back up to 48, then 58 on Friday.” A lot of that is dictated by what else is in season – for example, when strawberries and blueberries are ripe at the same time, workers will abandon picking blueberries  in favor of strawberries. Strawberries pay more because those farmers don’t have the option of harvesting by machine, but blueberry farmers do. As the season wears on, grapes ripen in California and workers move on to that market. Krahmer said sometimes the workers’ cell phones will start ringing and they’ll walk off the field right in the middle of picking and head to another farm where they’re paying more that day. She said she tried a weekly attendance bonus, but it didn’t work because it ended up being more trouble than it was worth.

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Hand pickers are paid by how much they pick at $0.35 per pound. Most are making about $100 to $150 in a four- to six-hour work day. The average worker picks about 40 to 50 pounds an hour, but the top pickers can pick as much as 80 to 100 pounds per hour.  Let’s compare that to my family of four that can pick about five pounds in an hour. Granted, about half of what my kids pick goes into their mouths, but still. That is seriously fast. I asked Krahmer for tips and she told me wearing the bucket right on your waist and cupping your hands leads to more efficient picking.

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Almost all of Krahmer’s hand crew are migrant workers from Mexico, and very few of them speak English. The berry industry is facing a labor shortage that Krahmer says is changing the fresh market. A lot of that has to do with labor immigration politics. “These workers want to work here for eight months and then go home and see their families,” Kraher said. “Lots of these workers have families back home, but the border makes it hard to get back home.” Krahmer said part of the labor shortage is also because of an increase in the Mexican economy. If they can find jobs at home, there is no incentive to come to the US to harvest fruit.

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I asked Krahmer why they don’t employ more non-migrant workers; for example, I only saw one white person picking by hand in the field. “We hired 15 white workers this year,” Krahmer said. “She [the one I met] is the only one still here. People think picking blueberries is easy, but when they discover it’s hard work they don’t want to do it.” If a picker doesn’t pick enough to make minimum wage, Krahmer is required to pay them minimum wage anyway. Krahmer said if the minimum wage goes to $15 as a lot of people hope, she won’t be able to afford a hand crew and she probably would have a hard time even getting a crew. “Who would pick blueberries in the sun all day for $15 an hour when you could work in an air conditioned building and make the same?” Krahmer said. “Consumers want more and more fresh fruit and organic options, but they don’t always understand what that means in terms of increased labor.” She said if the minimum wage goes to $15 an hour, she’ll only be able to do about 30 percent or less fresh market instead of the 50 percent she does now. That has an impact on her bottom line as well as reduced availability because she makes about $1.85 per pound for the fresh market compared to $0.75 per pound for the frozen market.

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Krahmer’s operation uses a digital system to help workers keep track of how much they pick. Each worker wears a name tag with a bar code on it. After they dump their buckets on to the trays, the supervisor scans their barcode before weighing the berries. The system keeps a running total of how many pounds that worker picks each day and the worker gets a printout with their name, date and total pounds picked so far that day. Krahmer said the system is very good, but occasionally there are problems that she must sort out during the day. For example, once a worker checks in to one weigh station, they must continue to weigh at that station all day. If they go to another station, the system encounters problems.

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All of Krahmer’s fresh blueberries go to Driscoll’s, which has a reputation for safe fruit and high quality. In order to sell to Driscoll’s, Krahmer’s operation must be Global G.A.P. certified, the highest certification available. That certification covers all stages of production, from pre-harvest activities such as soil management and plant protection product application to post-harvest produce handling, packing and storing. For example, all the buckets must be washed daily with a chlorine and water solution, and the buckets must sit on what’s called a “baby tray” in the field to keep them off the ground. After the berries are picked, they travel in a refrigerated semi truck that Krahmer leases to travel to Watsonville, CA where Driscoll’s is based. There they’re washed and sorted.

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Krahmer gets an update from her field manager each day on the quality of the berries being picked. This is important because if there is too much red (not ripe enough) or the berries are too soft (overripe or too hot), Driscoll’s will reject the entire shipment. They’re also looking for damage from birds (shown on the left) or from pests and disease (shown on the right). Krahmer uses electronic bird squawkers to keep the birds away, and while she says they work very well, they’re not perfect. Krahmer also has to spray insecticide to prevent damage from the Spotted Wing Drosophila, a fruit fly that arrive in Oregon in 2009 and lays its eggs in the berries. Processors test the fruit for presence of SWD by soaking the berries in a salt water bath that causes the larvae to crawl out of the berries. Once SWD is detected in a grower’s berries, they’re essentially trash. Not even the juice market will take them.  In the spring, Krahmer sprays fungicide to prevent fungus that deforms the fruit. She says they’re very careful about what they spray because in April she hires between two and six bee hives per acre to pollinate the crop.  They also have instigated a new native pollinator project through Oregon State University on their farm this year that hopes to attract native bees. “We really watch what we spray,” Krahmer said. “We don’t want to kill the bees.” While it might seem like the vast majority of the work gets done during harvest, there is work year-round on Krahmer’s farm. After the harvest, they promote growth of the plants and starting in November they hand prune every single plant. That generally takes until February or March because at 1,200 plants per acre and over 500 acres, that’s a lot of pruning. They also do what they can to try to time harvest as early and as late as possible because that’s when the market is most lucrative. They do this by tenting some of the fields and selecting different varieties that ripen at different times.

blueberry harvest-10One of the coolest things I wanted to see on Krahmer’s farm was the mechanical harvest of blueberries. Unfortunately, all I got to see was the machine sitting in the field because by the time I got there they were finished picking. The crew started at 5 a.m. when the berries were cool and by the time I got there at 10 a.m. they were done. Krahmer told me as it gets hotter, they’re going to have to go to night shifts. I’m still hoping to get some images of mechanical harvest in the next few weeks, and if I do, I’ll be sure to post an update here (maybe even with a video!) so you can see it for yourself. Stay tuned!

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Sol Survivor: Shedding light on sunscreen ingredients Part 2 of 2

(This is the second in a 2-part guest post by Jen Phillips. Jen holds a PhD in biology and is a Senior Research Associate at Westerfield Laboratory Institute of Neuroscience at the University of Oregon.)

Making sense of sunscreen controversies

Hello again!  In Part I of this series of posts, we explored the science behind sunlight, sunscreen and skin cancer.  That post left us with some pretty compelling reasons to cover up and slather on, but in this continuation we’ll be examining a few common claims out there that suggest sunscreen isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and may, in fact, be bad for you.  To put your mind at ease up front, there are no legitimate health concerns associated with sunscreen use, and there are demonstrable health benefits to regular application. So what’s all the fuss about?  Let’s take a look:

Does sunscreen use prevent cancer?

At first, this might seem like a silly question.  UV rays causes cancer, sunscreen blocks UV rays, therefore sunscreen must reduce skin cancer, right?  Sure, but scientific evaluation to back up this conclusion has had some mixed results.

sunscreen 2The biggest and most well-designed study to date was conducted in Australia, beginning in 1992.  The study included over a thousand participants, divided into an experimental group who applied SPF 16 sunscreen daily for four years, and a control group who used sunscreen at their own discretion. Initial results were reported after the four-year testing period, and additional data were obtained by tracking participants in both groups for another decade.  Overall, the study showed clear benefit of daily sunscreen use in prevention of squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), a benefit in prevention of Melanoma that was only noted at the end of the 10 year follow-up, and only a slight, statistically insignificant benefit in prevention of basal cell carcinoma (BCC.)

Why weren’t the results more spectacular, you might wonder, given the obvious correlation between UV radiation and skin cancer?  Based on its prevalence, one could hypothesize that BCC is easier to trigger than the other forms of skin cancer, and thus the SPF 16 sunscreen did not block enough UV rays to significantly reduce BCC rates. It’s also possible that UVA rays play a role in triggering BCC.  When this study was initiated in 1992, the sunscreen provided to participants—and indeed, all sunscreens on the market at that time—were UVB blocking only.

Still, even imperfect protection is better than none at all, right?  So using sunscreen would seem like a pretty straightforward choice.  Nevertheless, recent concerns over the safety of the products themselves have complicated the picture.

Does sunscreen disrupt hormones?

This claim is specific to oxybenzone–an organic UV filter that has been an active sunscreen ingredient for over 40 years.  The worry stems from in vitro studies showing that oxybenzone influences expression of estrogens and androgens in cultured breast cancer cells.  A study using mice also showed hormone related changes in uterine tissue when animals were fed oxybenzone daily.  Further potential for concern came from reports of oxybenzone being detected in urine and breast milk.

While it all sounds scary, the Paracelsus maxim (“the dosage makes the poison”) is important to keep in mind.  In vitro studies are notoriously lousy at predicting effects in functioning, multicellular systems like humans.  Further, the mice in the oxybenzone study were fed massive doses of the compound.  It would take several hundred years of daily sunscreen application to achieve similar exposure in humans, so it’s unlikely to be an issue for most of us.

What about the levels detected in urine and breast milk?  Well, oxybenzone is a popular ingredient in lots of products and materials beyond sunscreen. As such, it’s not surprising that it’s detectable in human excretions, and it’s not unique in that regard.  The key questions here are: are those levels attributable to sunscreen use and, more importantly, are those levels harmful?   To the first question, the urine study found no correlation between sunscreen use and oxybenzone levels.  To the second, a number of human studies specifically testing whether oxybenzone exposure from sunscreen use had any physiological effects showed no significant problems.  And finally, irrespective of the source of exposure, there have been no health problems of any kind linked to oxybenzone.  While it’s definitely valid to continue to monitor the chemicals in our environment, it’s also important to note that in nearly 5 decades of widespread use, no safety issues have come up.

Does sunscreen cause cancer?

This concern is primarily based on some in vitro studies showing that retinyl palmitate can generate biologically reactive molecules when exposed to UV radiation.  Retinyl palmitate isn’t a UV filter at all, but rather a Vitamin A precursor molecule that is a common additive to sunscreen formulas, as well as a great many other skincare and food products.  The factors generated when retinyl palmitate is exposed to light, called free radicals or reactive oxygen species, have a well-known potential to induce cancer.

Again, this a reasonable thing to test, but of the numerous studies conducted to assess the carcinogenic potential of retinyl palmitate, only a minority showed an effect, whereas most showed no adverse outcomes at all.  When weighed against the fact that widespread use of retinyl palmitate for years has resulted in no health problems, the few small in vitro studies suggesting harm are not convincing.

An additional cancer concern was raised by a couple of small studies that showed an increase in Melanoma in low-SPF sunscreen users compared to non-users.  The methods of these studies were relatively poor, compared to others that showed either no difference or a protective effect of sunscreen use.  Importantly the researchers didn’t evaluate other potential causes for the increase in Melanoma that they observed.  Stacked up against the better methodologies of larger studies, most particularly the comprehensive Australian study mentioned above, the data just don’t support a causative link between sunscreen use and Melanoma.

Is sunscreen toxic?

This concern arises from recent modifications to the inorganic sunscreen ingredients, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, both of which filter UVB and some UVA rays.  Zinc oxide has been around for a while—you’ll probably recognize it as that opaque white stuff that beachgoers slather all over their noses.  Titanium dioxide is a more recent addition to the sunscreen arsenal, but is similarly pasty in appearance.

While such products are well-suited for small, high profile areas like the nose and cheekbones, their thick, pasty formulas are so difficult to spread that they’re not generally used for whole body protection, which is unfortunate because in addition to being great UV filters they’re also far less likely to cause skin reactions or allergies than some of the organic compounds.

To get around this problem, recent formulations use microsized” or “nanosized” titanium dioxide or zinc oxide mineral particles.  These preparations have the dual advantage of making the product easier to spread and less opaque.   However, the small size of these particles has raised concerns about their ability to penetrate the skin and reach toxic levels in the living cells beneath.  Fortunately, all the evidence indicates that these particles aren’t able to enter the body through the skin. Most were even tested on broken skin and showed no tendency to penetrate to the living cell layers.  This seems to be due, at least in part, to the fact that although the individual particles are indeed very small, they tend to aggregate together in solution, forming chemical bonds that keep them from moving around independently.

swing-1Does sunscreen cause vitamin D deficiency?

This concern seems reasonable on its face. Skin cells in the epidermis produce a vitamin D precursor that is activated by sunlight (by UVB rays, specifically). Block the sunlight, and you could potentially block vitamin D synthesis.  Studies have shown that sunscreen can indeed reduce vitamin D production.  Vitamin D screening is common in primary health care, and is now a cornerstone of the supplement industry, as well as a popular scapegoat for a wide range of maladies in the ‘wellness’ community.

There is a great deal of variation in the definitions of what might constitute a clinically normal vitamin D level in adults, so much so that experts don’t actually recommend routine screening at all.  However, legitimate vitamin D deficiency can lead to some well-characterized developmental problems, like rickets, so it is important to do due diligence when considering the effect of sunblock for children.  Fortunately, research has shown that the use of sunscreen doesn’t contribute to vitamin D deficiency.

Why the discrepancy? In short, it seems that no one is perfectly compliant when applying sunscreen.  A little sun exposure, literally 15-30 minutes a week, is all an otherwise healthy fair skinned person needs to synthesize sufficient amounts of vitamin D.  A few minutes in the sun without sunscreen, or maybe just on that one spot you couldn’t quite reach, appears to be enough.  This is borne out by both the lack of correlation between sunscreen use and vitamin D deficiency, and also the low incidence of rickets and other known outcomes of vitamin D deficiency, in the sunscreen-using population.

Are spray-on sunscreens safe?

A couple of years ago, the FDA announced that it was collecting more data on spray-on sunscreen, which at the time was relatively new to the market.  This was interpreted as an ominous development by some, and a number of unofficial advisories were issued about avoiding use on children, risk of inhalation, etc.  The FDA didn’t issue any sort of follow up on their findings, but based on the number of consumer bulletins about spray-on sunscreen on the FDA website, it seems pretty clear that there are no specific health concerns regarding the sunscreen part of the ingredients.  Much more emphasis has been placed on regulating the ‘dosage’, if you will, since it is applied so much differently than sunscreen lotion.  There are also a number of common-sense precautions that also apply to many other spray-on products. For example, it’s a terrible idea to apply an alcohol-based spray around an open flame, no matter what the other ingredients are.  It’s probably not a good idea to spray sunscreen into your kid’s face, any more than it would be a good idea to spray insect repellent or hairspray.  Inhaling aerosol products in lieu of air is typically an unpleasant experience.  However, aside from these fairly broad safety guidelines, there isn’t any specific reason to shy away from spray on sunscreen.

In summary,

-sunscreen continues to be recommended by healthcare professionals to prevent burns as well as to protect skin from premature aging and from cancer.

-sunscreen safety has been well established.  No health issues have been linked to sunscreen ingredients, despite extensive testing.

-sunscreen provides maximum protection when used appropriately—applying a thick, even layer and reapplying regularly.

One last thing:  the FDA requires sunscreen to be tested for stability and durability, and the expiration dates are usually around 3 years from the date of manufacturing.  These dates are backed by sufficient testing so as to be trustworthy, but also require the liberal application of common sense.  If your sunscreen is stored in extreme temperatures for a long period, for example, or if it changes consistency from one year to the next, it’s a good idea to replace it even if it’s not technically expired.

So, be smart about sun exposure, wear hats and water shirts when possible, seek out a broad-spectrum product with high SPF, slather up, and have a beautiful summer.  I’ll see you at the pool.

 

For more tips and information, see this sunscreen FAQ from the Skin Cancer Foundation

Also, see the Skin Cancer Foundation’s response to some of the recently renewed claims.

 

References:

Burnett and Wang, 2011. Current sunscreen controversies:  a critical review. Photodermatology, Photoimmunity & Photomedicine. 27, 58-67

Jansen, et al., 2013. Photoprotection: Part II. Sunscreen: Development, efficacy and controversies. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 69(6). 867.e1-867.e14.

LeFevre, et al., 2015. Screening for Vitamin D Deficiency in Adults: U.S. Preventative Services Task Force Recommendation Statement.  Annals of Internal Medicine.162(2): 133-140.

Green, et al., 2011. Reduced melanoma after regular sunscreen use: randomized trial follow-up. Journal of Clinical Oncology  29(3):257-63.

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