It was the 65th annual California Weed Science Society conference, but fertilizer was on the mind of many there in Sacramento earlier this year.

It takes nitrogen to grow crops and weeds, and it was N that drew the first questions for Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, a keynoter at the event.

Nitrogen use has been elevated to the No. 1 spot on the list of issues confronting California agriculture with the release about a year ago of a University of California study that cited nitrates in groundwater as a major contaminant of drinking water.

The study spawned calls for a rush to regulations and taxation to punish agriculture and fund the cleanup of drinking water systems in many rural, impoverished areas of the state.

CDFA has been put in the bull’s-eye of the storm since it is the California cabinet level agricultural agency. CDFA also manages a program that already taxes fertilize sales for the Fertilizer Research and Education Program (FREP). It is now the point agency in developing a curriculum primarily for Certified Crop Advisers (CCA), who are expected to play a major role in developing nutrient management plans for individual farms.

“We are working with the regional water boards to come up with alternatives for nutrient management,” she says. This, hopefully will head off a heavy-handed regulatory approach to addressing the problem.

One of the recommendations coming out of the UC report and being bantered around in Sacramento is mandatory farm nitrogen use reporting. Ross does not think that is necessary or wise to address the problem.

She said nutrient use reporting is “very different” from the mandatory pesticide use reporting now mandated. For one thing, nitrogen can come from many sources, such as, manure, compost, crop residue, residual soil nitrogen, irrigation water, rotation crops like alfalfa  to synthetic fertilizers. That makes it difficult to report accurate N sources. “There is a better way to collect data than mandatory use reporting,” she said.

 

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Renee Pinel, president of the Western Plant Health Association, said the CDFA curriculum development process involves the University of California scientists, and other state agencies like the California Department of Pesticide Regulation that have a stake in the irrigated lands program, and stakeholders.

So far, this proactive educational approach has headed off an onslaught of legislation leading to new regulation or taxes.

“I think legislators understand that the issue is complex” and are willing to let stakeholders and regional water boards work to address the new laws, Pinel says.

Also, water bond funds have been earmarked to mitigate nitrate-contaminated drinking water problems, precluding the need to tax farmers.