Driving northeast from Visalia, Calif., toward the farming communities of Orosi, Cutler and Orange Cove, a bluish gray haze noticeably obscured not only the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, but the foothills as well.

Traveling closer to the hills, the rocks and brown grass of those hills slowly came into view, giving contrast to the lush orchards and vineyards on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley.

The sharply uplifting mountains and foothills emerged as if they were coming out of the valley's trademark winter fog. However, it was summer, and there was no fog. It was smog.

San Joaquin Valley townspeople and rural residents alike often bemoan the loss of their once daily view of the magnificent Sierra. When rains wash away the gunk in the air and the rare morning sunrise frames the mountains, it is breathtaking.

For decades air pollution had been the exclusive domain of Southern California. No more. Earlier this summer the California Air Resources Board (CARB) adopted the most stringent fine particulate matter air quality standards in the world for California, lowering the PM10 standard to less than half the federal annual average.

About the same time, the San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District voluntarily requested change in the valley's air quality status for ozone to “extreme” non-attainment from serious non-attainment because the control district staff does not believe the valley could meet its “serious” attainment requirements by 2005. What that means is that the district wants more time to meet an attainment standard and will lower the permitting threshold for pollution sources.

As California hurls toward a population of 50 million within the next 40 years, air quality will join water availability and quality as the trifecta of California political nightmares.

Unfortunately, agriculture is becoming air pollution's poster boy in the agricultural valleys. After all, everyone can see — as they play dodge ball with the thousands of semis and millions of cars hurling down Highway 99 through the heart of the San Joaquin — tractors disking a field or spraying orchards and vineyards, therefore, agriculture must be a major air pollution source.

Maxwell Norton, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Merced County, makes a very good case that the growing air pollution problem cannot be laid on the turnrow of farming. (See Page 5).

It will take more of that as well as hard facts via air monitoring about what agriculture contributes and does not contribute to California's growing pollution problem to battle the political air pollution firestorms ahead.

Agriculture has proven it will do its part, within reason, to control air pollution. Water trucks are common now to keep dust down. California's cotton gins are among the cleanest operating in the world. Agricultural processing plants readily comply with air quality standards.

Agriculture should not be asked to do more than its fair share in dealing with a growing problem brought on mainly by a burgeoning population.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com