Perception is everything in air pollution battles

It was a particularly smoggy morning a couple of weeks ago when driving south to Kern County from Fresno. There was a smoky smell in the air. It was very hazy, almost like a winter fog. An inversion layer hung over the San Joaquin Valley like a giant concrete slab.

It was another day in a long list of what are called “spare the air” days in the valley. People are asked not to mow lawns and to carpool when there is an ominous “spare the air” day as proclaimed by the morning weather and anchor persons.

“Spare the air” days are signals for everyone to start complaining about the air quality, but do none of the recommended “spare the air” day recommendations.

The lawn mower thing always cracks me up. No one mows their lawn on a weekday, and I have never seen a professional gardener park his truck and trailer on one of those spare the air days. There are never Saturday or Sunday spare the air days when most lawns are mowed.

Air quality has become the “cause” of environmentalists and politicians alike. Their whipping boy right now is agriculture. There are few farmers, and it is challenging for them to politically fight off the socially conscious horde that see a tractor cultivating, and they blame all the valley's growing air pollution on farmers.

It is never the burgeoning valley population and the thousands more trucks and cars now in the valley than just a decade ago.

It's only the farmers, even though less land is being farmed than ever before. Environmentalists and politicians do not believe farmers when the say they don't like dust or pollution either. Farmers run water trucks constantly, oil roads, run expensive pollutant collecting equipment on processing plants. Dust damages crops. It wears out equipment. It costs money to run tractors, harvesters and cultivators, and farmers don't have a lot of cash to waste unnecessarily burning diesel fuel and paying driver wages.

Farm organizations have been battling air quality legislation that punishes them unfairly. They were successful in modifying some of the more onerous provisions of the latest series of anti-agriculture pollution bills before the California legislature passed them.

That said; as I headed down Highway 99 alongside a million other cars and trucks that morning I passed through Fowler, Calif., just south of Fresno.

A low-hanging smoke bank was slowly drifting across all six freeway lanes. The smoke was coming from a farmer burning used paper raisin trays not 50 yards off the freeway. I will not repeat the words I used when I saw that smoke.

Perception is everything in agriculture's air pollution battle. Toss all the facts you want on a table, but they would be as worthless as a tractor without tires beside the perception of the hundreds of drivers who drove through that burning raisin tray smoke.

It is difficult enough for the vast majority of California farmers to keep from getting slaughtered politically without someone like that raisin grower not only shooting himself in the foot but doing irreparable harm to so many others.

I am still angry thinking about that morning.

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