Is California agriculture part of our air quality problem, or is it part of the solution?

This summer, the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) will hold public hearings on new rules that sharply reduce air emissions from farm fumigants. These gaseous pesticides clear the soil of weeds, insects, and mold for a wide variety of crops, from carrots in Kern County to strawberries on the Ventura coast.

Unfortunately, fumigants also contribute to smog. Under the federal Clean Air Act, most regulatory efforts against smog for the past two decades have focused on vehicles, gasoline, and stationary sources such as power plants and factories.

But as growers have shifted to higher-value fruit and vegetable crops, they have used more fumigants. Three areas – the San Joaquin Valley, the Southeast Desert, and Ventura County – now fail to meet pesticide air goals. Last year, a federal judge ruled that DPR must put unprecedented restrictions in place by January 1, 2008.

The truly daunting challenge is whether we can meet our environmental obligations and sustain a farm economy that produces more than half the fresh fruits and vegetables for our nation. Some critics of agriculture would simply ban pesticides, but reality and environmental sensibilities are far more complex.

The shift to higher-value crops and more fumigant use, for example, is one side effect of a statewide real estate boom. Farmers who lease their fields have a hard time competing with land speculators. And farmers who owned land have good reason to cash out before the next commodity price downturn, drought, or flood pulls them into debt for years to come.

With so much riding on every year’s crop, it’s little wonder that lenders and landowners require growers to fumigate their fields – whether they wanted to or not – to ensure profitability. DPR discovered this several years ago, as we undertook efforts to help growers develop fumigant alternatives and other least-toxic pest management strategies.

In the process, we also saw many farmers grow more environmentally sustainable – finding the right, long-term balance to meet the needs of nature and people. Examples abound: Green buffer zones promote natural eco-systems and prevent runoff from orchards. Wine grape growers embrace a comprehensive manual that guides everyday activity, from vineyard management to employee and community relations. Old-fashioned practices encourage natural pest control, while cutting-edge technology uses computers to apply the smallest amount of least-toxic chemicals.

Now we must do more, and California’s future landscape hangs in the balance.

While DPR is absolutely committed to cleaner air and a healthier environment for all Californians, the court deadline leaves little regulatory flexibility. DPR must reduce fumigant emissions by 38 percent in the San Joaquin Valley -- and more than 50 percent in Ventura County and the Southeast Desert -- under rules that must take effect next year.

Some commodity groups already fear a farm exodus. If that occurs, every ton of agricultural emissions could be multiplied tenfold by development. Strip malls, suburban tracts and street traffic create far more pollution than agriculture. Yet development provides none of the benefits of food production – unless you count the fast-and-fried take-out variety.

In Ventura County, land use restrictions and local ordinances have stitched together a crazy-quilt pattern of farming, suburbia, and business that ensures air emissions and use conflicts. Even when farmland has been permanently preserved, its mere presence has become a major irritant to neighboring homes and business. Or as one local official put it, “You can’t farm and you can’t get out of farming – that’s our motto here in Ventura.”

That motto could become a statewide mantra unless we develop overall environmental policies that are more cooperative and comprehensive, rather than confrontational. We must recognize that every segment of our society has some value in the overall scheme of things. Grow crops or suburbs? It’s a false choice for the environment to swap one source of smog for another that could be worse.

DPR’s pesticide air strategy is consistent with Governor Schwarzenegger’s commitment to clean up our air and take action against global warming. At the same time, the Governor has rightly insisted that environmental and economic priorities must co-exist and should complement each other.

In our case, this means stressing low-emission pesticide air applications for now, and more creative alternatives for the future. Last month, DPR held a two-day air emissions symposium in Sacramento that brought together agricultural and environmental stakeholders, government agencies, and academic authorities to discuss research needs.

At the national level, such research has lagged for two reasons. First, other agricultural states have not yet felt pressure from the Clean Air Act. Second, there was a lack of national leadership on global warming until Governor Schwarzenegger filled that void. Now that we are beginning to see a change in the political climate, state and federal agencies need to pool their resources and join the private sector to make up for lost time in dealing with agricultural air emissions.

Meanwhile, we’re already working with one commodity group on a transition away from fumigants. This biological solution could also make thousands of acres of fallow farmland productive once again. On another front, we’re exploring partnerships with private foundations that want to fund new research that can assure agriculture’s future.

Certainly, it would be easier for DPR to cite our legal directives, shrug our shoulders, and ignore the consequences for agriculture.

But to create a California that is truly a model of progress and diversity for the rest of the nation, we need an environment – natural and economic – that serves and sustains us for generations to come. Change is in the air, and we will adapt to it.