Agriculture facing another difficult task reducing fumigant stage

There is a storm brewing over recent proposals by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation that have earmarked three state regions in an effort to comply with a judge's order that it abide by a State Implementation Plan to reduce volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from pesticide emissions by 20 percent. In this proposal, DPR would achieve that goal by limiting emissions of soil fumigants.

At stake are thousands of acres that might be taken out of production in Ventura County to meet the stricter air quality standards, at a statewide cost to growers that could exceed $80 million a year.

It would be the most costly pesticide regulation in California history. Other impacted areas include the San Joaquin Valley and the southeastern desert region, including Antelope and Coachella valleys.

The new rules relate to fumigant use from May to October but also impact how fumigants are used throughout the year. Specific caps on the amount of fumigants used will be set in these areas and once those limits are hit, soil fumigation will not be allowed.

Also under the proposal, all California growers who use fumigants must hire commercial applicators and must incorporate low-emission techniques, such as using more tarps or applying multiple irrigations after fumigation.

As expected, the DPR proposals have sent shockwaves through agriculture as manufacturers and growers alike scramble to deal with the crisis about how best to meet a 20 percent reduction in emissions. DPR is obligated by the court decision to have a regulation in place by Jan. 1, 2008.

Fumigants are crop protection products used in fields before planting to manage soil-borne pests, killing insects (especially root-eating nematodes), weeds, and organisms causing soil-borne diseases. Some percentage of the applied fumigants volatilize into the air and are considered VOCs.

DPR has scheduled two important formal hearings to gain public input about the proposed regulations, one in Ontario on July 10, the other in Parlier, in Fresno County, on July 12. These hearings are likely to be highly charged, as various sides of the debate present their viewpoints about fumigant emissions.

For those who have not been following this controversy, DPR's action stems from a federal court-ordered deadline to combat smog. State officials warn that growers of strawberries, tomatoes, and peppers will bear the brunt of the regulations, the biggest burden falling on strawberry growers, who will face strict caps on emissions and may have to resort to pulling thousands of acres out of production to meet the stiffer standards.

Tree and vine growers in the San Joaquin Valley also face serious challenges as DPR's proposed regulations say fumigant emissions must be decreased 38 percent. Each year 10,000 acres of tree and vine crops alone (almonds, grapes, stone fruit, and citrus) are treated during the May to October window.

Coincidentally, a DPR public symposium addressing the very issue of VOC emissions — that had been in the making since last October — was held at the Red Lion Inn in Sacramento May 22-23, just a few days after DPR went public with its new proposals.

I attended this two-day event. The speakers included scientists from the USDA/ARS, experts from state campuses such as University of California, Davis, and the University of California Kearny Agricultural Center, and also a senior representative from the Pesticide Action Network North America.

Industry members presented information indicating that unnecessary and costly proposals would not benefit state agriculture and there were no clear signs that air quality would be improved.

There was a general consensus that if changes have to be made, they must be scientifically sound, with the least economic impact, and a scenario such as California's MTBE fuel additive debacle must be avoided at all costs.

Attending the two-day forum was panelist Rick Tomlinson, director of public policy for the California Strawberry Commission, which represents the state's strawberry growers, who produce almost 90 percent of the nation's crop.

Tomlinson had been quoted in media accounts as saying if the DPR draft as purposed is implemented, it will definitely drive some growers out of business. He also took issue with “old, obsolete data” he says is being used to drive the regulations. As an example of why this regulation is so unsettling to many in agriculture, it is worth highlighting that Ventura County, one of the three areas at issue, has been in compliance with the federal Clean Air Act for the past several years. However, because of the legal pressure being exerted from court litigation, fumigants nonetheless have been placed in the crosshairs. Whether a judge will take this fact into account is anyone's guess.

Take note that the industry has not sat idle in dealing with the problem of fumigant emissions. Farmers are increasingly using new technologies such as drip formulations, deeper shank injection, improved soil moisture conditions, and tarps to mitigate emissions. And while the agriculture industry's contribution to VOC emissions is exceedingly small (3 percent to 6 percent) when compared to other contributors such as automobiles, the industry obviously realizes the need to do its share wherever possible. And it should be kept in mind that California has the strictest standards for the use and application of pesticides in the nation.

DPR has suggested that in the San Joaquin Valley and desert region, low-emission techniques are expected to achieve the targets. However, the practicality and economic feasibility of some of these “low-emission” methods are very much in question.

In Ventura County, because of increased strawberry acreage, the difference between the target and projected emissions from pesticides is even more dramatic. Up to 10,000 acres — one-third of Ventura County's fumigated acres — might have to be removed from production or left untreated to meet the court-ordered limit. About 25 percent of the nation's strawberries are grown within the county.

Tomlinson points out that to stay in business, Ventura growers would have to use expensive, less effective methods or grow lower-value crops that do not use fumigants. At the end of the two-day Sacramento symposium, DPR solicited input from the public and industry about the best way to meet the court-mandated emissions reduction. The department will be doing the same next month at the meetings in Ontario and Parlier.

Needless to say, agriculture has a lot riding on the outcome of these hearings and the eventual formulation of regulations that are finally implemented. Make no mistake about it, this is a big deal and interested parties both in California and across the nation will be closely watching how this whole process shakes out. I will keep you updated as these regulations work themselves through the system during the coming months.

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