When a farmer gets on a tractor in Maricopa County, Ariz., he has 6.8 million pairs of eyes looking at him.

Those peering peepers belong to the 3.4 million residents of the most populous county in the state. More than half of Arizona's 5.6-million residents live in the 9,200-square-mile county, and it is a sure bet that each resident of in the valley that gives new meaning to urban sprawl lives near or goes by a patch of farmland each week.

From the air, the Phoenix metropolitan area looks like a big green and housing development checkerboard. It is common for farmers to grow cotton, alfalfa or wheat surrounded on all 4 sides by housing developments. And there are the Indian reservations where housing development is not permitted, but farming is. Large farming operations are a two-lane road away from some of the most populated areas of the Valley of the Sun, like Scottsdale.

Farming is very visible amidst one of the fastest growing cities in the West struggling with some of the worst air pollution in the West.

So when the government started enforcing the Clean Air Act and emissions of infamous PM 10s, those tiny little 10-micron dust particles in the air that have been implicated in respiratory ailments, it was the Maricopa County farmer who had the collective finger of 3.4 million people pointed at him.

Kevin Rogers, Maricopa County Farmer and president of the Arizona Farm Bureau, said agriculture probably contributed no more than 13 to 17 percent of the PM 10 when the Environmental Protection Agency came knocking on the door of Maricopa County agriculture.

“We are loosing 7,000 to 8,000 acres of farmland per year to housing so it is probably less now,” he said.

Nevertheless, Rogers said agriculture chose to be proactive and show a willingness to do its part without the feds telling it what they must do.

‘Do our part’

“We wanted to step up to the plate and do our part because we knew farming in an urban area like Phoenix would always be an issue. We wanted to do our fair share to show we were good neighbors, but we did not want to be forced to do more than our fair share,” said Rogers.

What EPA agreed to was to allow Maricopa County farmers to develop their own best management plans; put them down on paper; put them in the pickup truck or office and when someone asked them what they were doing to reduce PM 10 emissions, just show them that plan.

No permit to file. No fee to pay.

Nevertheless, Arizona has been criticized by it neighbor, California for acquiescing to EPA and agreeing to a “permit process.” Central San Joaquin Valley farmers face the same PM 10 reduction mandate as Maricopa County farmers. Like the Phoenix area, SJV is a non-attainment area for federal clean air standards.

Many of those doing battle with EPA and air quality regulators in California claim Arizona producers caved in and that set a bad precedent. Arizona farmers say they saved themselves a lot of misery by developing their own plan and winning EPA's approval for it.

This year SJV producers were forced to develop similar best management plans, but they are more onerous than those in Arizona. They are crop specific, and producers were forced to pay a fee for the right to be regulated by the air regulators. Their plans also must be on file with air quality regulators or they face fines.

Marcia Colquitt, air quality field consultant for the Arizona Department of Agriculture, said the Maricopa County program that began Jan. 1, 2002 is “complaint driven.”

There have been complaints; 10 in the past 12 months according to Rogers in a valley crammed with 3.4 million of people. If a complaint is filed on a farmer, he is asked if he has a best management plan for basic farming activity; tillage and harvest; dust mitigation on non-cropland and fallow ground and roads.

If he has a plan and is implementing those practices, it goes no farther. If he has no plan, he is asked to create one and prove it to the regulators.

Checks, balances

“There are checks and balances in the program that the farmer is held accountable,” said Rogers. “There have been no citations issued,” said Rogers.

“We like to think our program is not about damage control, but about educate and control,” said Rogers. “We are still learning and continuing to educate. We also think it bought us some time for people to look at the science behind some of the regulations.”

Rogers is on the federal air quality ag task force and said some of the science behind the PM 10 regulations in farming “does not look as good as some thought.”

Nevertheless, when you farm in a fish bowl like Phoenix, those millions of eyes will never look the other way when there is a cultivator or planter or cotton picker going through a field next to their homes.

“Our program does not say we are never going to make dust again and under certain conditions there will be dust,” said Rogers. “What we are saying to our neighbors is that we are doing the best we can to minimize dust by developing best management plans and showing them to anyone who asks.”

The educational process will continue in Maricopa County agriculture, and the Arizona Department Agriculture through its agricultural consultation and training program has established a free compliance assistant program for regulated farmers in developing agricultural best management practices.

Colquitt heads the program and she said it is a voluntary, non-regulatory process to help farmers meet federal, state and local air quality standards.

Work with farmers

“I am available to work with farmers on an individual basis and make site specific assessments and recommendations to meet compliance with air regulations,” said Colquitt.

It is difficult for farmers to meet all the regulations they face today. “The compliance assistance program provides that helping hand in sorting out what is required,” she said. The program was developed also to show the community farmers are “responsible stewards” of the environment and that “the best management practices they are implementing are helping to clean the air,” she said.

Information on the assistance program is available through the Arizona Department of Agriculture (602) 542-3484 or on the program's Web site (http://agriculture.state.az.us/ACT/AirQuality.htm

Overall, Rogers believes the Maricopa County ag air quality plan is “working fine. We have done what needed to be done.

“Sitting down with EPA and developing our own plan got EPA off our back,” he said. “The agricultural community feels pretty good about what it has accomplished. It has taken us off the radar screen, although we are still part of the puzzle.”

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com