Like the hulks of destroyed Iraqi military vehicles littering the roads from Kuwait City to Baghdad, the San Joaquin Valley is littered with piles of grapestakes, testimony to a battle lost not only in the marketplace, but to California grape growers' own government regulators.

Adding insult to injury, regulators at the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District in Fresno say financially strapped grape growers who push out their money-losing vineyards cannot burn chemically treated wooden grapestakes, even though some have been in the ground for decades.

They must separate as many as 50 million stakes from the vines and haul them to sanitary landfills. They cannot even mechanically chip them, and they dare not give them away for firewood because the district says the farmer would be liable for air pollution violations if they were burned by a homeowner.

The no-appeal government edict is costing producers at least $1,000 more per acre to separate out stakes and wire from vines and haul them to the sanitary landfill for disposal.

This treated grapestake no-burn ban is just another onerous air quality regulation farmers are being saddled with as the San Joaquin Valley struggles to meet the requirements of the federal Clean Air Act.

Cry foul

Farmers contend they are being unfairly singled out when the growing air pollution problem is being caused largely by a growing population and more cars and trucks in the valley. They cite the grapestake no-burn regulation as evidence of that.

Alex Ott, director of governmental relations for the California Grape and Tree Fruit League, says the costly grapestake no-burn regulation is forcing growers to simply abandon vineyards.

“This no-burn regulation creates more problems that it solves because these abandoned vineyards become a haven for pests to infect other, farmed vineyards,” said Ott. This is a major concern with the northward march from the Southern San Joaquin Valley of the glassy-winged sharpshooter and its vectored vine-killing disease, Pierce's Disease.

The no-burn decree is no small problem since an estimated 100,000 acres of vineyard are projected to be bulldozed or abandoned within the next two seasons. An estimated 100,000 acres have already come out, but these apparently escaped the air pollution control district's anti-burn order which was issued in January.

The vineyards are being abandoned or pulled out as a matter of economics. There are too many raisin, wine and table grapes in the valley to meet the demand.

The no-burn order is adding insult to injury and preventing producers economically from planting different crops or even farming open ground, according to Allan Corrin of Corrin Produce Sales in Reedley, Calif.

“An old vineyard is worth about $4,000 per acre — basically the value of the land without the vines,” said Corrin. “It can cost from $800 to $2,000 per acre in additional costs to separate out and haul away non burnable grapestakes. That reduces the value of the land by that amount. What it amounts to is that the grower owes the bank money for the land.

“Who is going to blame a grower for simply abandoning the vineyard?” Corrin said.

It cost only about $450 per acre to push and burn a vineyard without removing stakes, estimates Corrin.

There are about 500 grapevines per acre and if each is staked, the no-burn order could affect the disposal of more than 50 million grapestakes from 100,000 acres.

Defends order

Ted Strauss, supervising air quality inspector for the district, defended the order saying burning treated grapestakes has always been prohibited.

That was news to Corrin and Ott.

“We have piled and burned everything for years with burning permits,” said Corrin.

“In the past we have relied on farmers knowledge of what is in the vineyard to comply with the ban on burning chemically treated stakes,” said Strauss.

Now air pollution control district inspectors are inspecting burn piles to make sure stakes are not there. And, according to Ott and Corrin, the district is weeks behind in inspecting and issuing burn permits.

In some cases, inspectors have ordered growers who were not aware of the January no-burn order to separate out stakes from already piled vineyards before a burn permit would be ordered. This can be even more costly than separating out stakes while the vineyard is still standing.

Strauss said the stepped up enforcement is because until now most vineyard removals have been “older vineyards planted in the 1950s” which typically had untreated redwood stakes. “Because of the economics, younger vineyards are being pulled and many of these are staked with treated stakes.” he explained.

Not only is the air pollution control district forbidding burning of treated stakes, it is also prohibiting growers from chipping the stakes and disking them back into the soil.

‘Ridiculous’

“This is ridiculous. Rather than chipping and disking-in old stakes — some of which have been in the ground for 20 year or more — growers are being forced to haul millions of grapestakes to a sanitary landfill, concentrating in one location millions of so-called hazardous stakes,” said Corrin. “It doesn't make sense. Where is the science?

“Science is really not an issue here. Regulations prohibit disposing of chemically treated wood in a manner that poses a risk” said Strauss, who said his office's testing has shown stakes treated with chrome, arsenic, copper and creosote.

According to Strauss, the same air pollution rules that govern burning treated stakes cover the dust and air particles emitted by chipping and disking in stakes.

“Not all grapestakes are treated, and untreated stakes can be burned,” said Strauss. “We find a lot of redwood stakes that are not treated. However, any milled stake has usually been treated,” he said.

And, not all stakes removed from vineyards are discarded.

“We are also seeing some growers recycling stakes for use in new vineyards,” Strauss added.

Ott said the California Grape and Tree Fruit League has been trying to change the rules, but the air pollution district has refused to budge.

The district is also warning growers that if they allow piled stakes to be taken by passersby, they are liable for any air pollution violations associated with those stakes.

“This whole thing is causing an enormous hardship on grape growers at a time when they can ill-afford it. And, the district will not tell us the science behind what they are doing,” said Corrin.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com