(Paul Jones is from San Rafael, California and is a recent graduate of Stanford University's Graduate Program in Journalism. He previously worked as a reporter in Marin County, California, covering local government, business and community news for the San Rafael News Pointer and the Novato Advance newspapers.)

In December of 2010, the California State Board of Food and Agriculture published results of a two-year investigation into how the state could promote better agricultural policies. One theme of the final report, “California Agricultural Vision: Strategies for Sustainability” is that efforts should be made to make farming more environmentally friendly - for example, expanding the use of renewable energy and increasing environmental stewardship of farmland.

However, despite emphasizing a number of “green” goals, “Strategies for Sustainability” also makes a notable criticism of California’s environmental regulation of agriculture. In one section, the report cites environmental and other rules as “often duplicative, conflicting, uncoordinated, inflexible, inconsistently administered or needlessly burdensome.” According to the report, state regulations sometimes even hinder the objectives they’re supposed to achieve.

Those criticisms are echoed by an environmentalist who worked on the report - Ashley Boren, executive director of the San Francisco-based non-profit “Sustainable Conservation.” Boren is now working on a follow-up effort to figure out how to address problems identified in the report, specifically with regard to environmental rules. Boren, who spends time working with farmers through Sustainable Conservation to promote more eco-friendly practices, said the state’s “green” goals are well-intentioned. But she said her experiences have led her to believe California’s policymakers need to reform the way the state implements environmental rules.

“You can have cross-regulatory conflicts, rules that prevent issues from being addressed because they’re too burdensome, and then you also get regulations layered one over another,” she said.

The problem for farmers is compounded by the fact that within the past decade, California agencies have implemented some of the strictest environmental rules for agriculture in the nation. Representatives with organizations such as the California Farm Bureau Federation and Western Growers Association say that as a result, agricultural business costs have increased substantially. The State Board of Food and Agriculture’s report asserts that California agricultural businesses are the most heavily regulated in the country, and collectively pay $2.2 billion dollars each year to comply with state rules, including environmental regulations.

Boren said many of the rules that are burdensome to farmers also impede protection of the environment. For example, her group worked in Santa Cruz County in northern California to help farmers who wanted to prevent erosion of their land by streams, a necessary step to protect water from contamination by soil containing fertilizers and pesticides. But many farmers weren’t able to make improvements because of the complicated permitting processes required.

“You have to go to up to seven different agencies just to get permits,” Boren said. “It’s legal to let your land erode, but it’s not to do something about it without these rules.”

Boren said problems with conflicting and burdensome regulations are systemic, and require new approaches to crafting and reviewing environmental rules.

“We need to step back and make sure these regulations are meeting their intended outcomes,” she said.