Fresno County, Calif. is the No. 1 agricultural county in the nation, but its $4.8 billion in farm gate income does not insulate its county agricultural commissioner from government budget crunches.

County Ag Commissioner Jerry Prieto recently decided to cancel continuing education classes his office conducts for the county’s 2,075 private applicator certificate holders.

Each California county requires farmers who apply pesticides to have applicator’s certificates earned through testing and requiring six hours of continuing education training every three years to remain valid.

“We have offered almost 500 continuing education classes since 1997,” said Karen Francone, deputy county ag commissioner. “In the budget crunch we are experiencing, we felt our limited resources would be better spent in other areas of the pesticide regulatory process since continuing education courses are available online as well as in person to fill the void left by cancelling most of the 15 classes we have had scheduled this year.”

Prieto’s office has notified the county’s permit holders of the cancellation and is referring certificate holders to other classes, including the free online continuing education classes offered by Western Farm Press on its Web site (www.westernfarmpress.com).

Links to the nine courses developed by Farm Press and accredited for more than 20 hours by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation also are available on the California Association of Pest Control Advisors Web site (www.capca.com). Three of courses offer CE units in the important area of laws and regulations.

“The Western Farm Press classes are terrific. We have had many of our applicators go online and take them. The information is excellent and the convenience is great,” said Francone.

Two years ago Prieto’s office endorsed a Western Farm Press online continuing education course as part of mitigation efforts to minimize herbicide spray drift damage to crops in the county.

The CEU course, entitled Spray Drift Management to Minimize Problems and co-sponsored online by Valent USA and Western Farm Press, met the county’s requirement that Prieto imposed on all PCAs, licensed applicators and ag pilots who recommended or applied herbicides in a sprawling area on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley.

Prieto mandated the course after his office received the largest number of spray drift loss reports ever reported in Fresno County in the spring of 2004.

“We had 43. Normally we have one or two,” Francone said.

When it became apparent the problem was widespread, Prieto mapped a strategy to preclude it from happening again. This included a new permitting process that featured a requirement that everyone who worked in the area attend a two-hour educational session on spray drift prevention.

Many PCAs and licensed applicators could not attend one of the classes, and Prieto allowed them to take the Western Farm Press online course to meet the in-person course requirement.

“I have gone through the spray drift management course Western Farm Press and Valent offers, and it is excellent. With the California Department of Pesticide Regulation’s two-hour accreditation for the course, it met our two-hour requirement,” Francone said.

While Francone is a supporter of online CEUs, she also hopes her office can resume CEU classes next fall, if county finances improve. If they don’t, Prieto said a resumption of classes may include a fee for taking courses.

“We use the classes to provide information, but just as importantly it gives the staff a chance to interact with growers. We want to let them know that we are interested in compliance and not just enforcement of the rules and regulations. The classes also put names with faces from our office” said Francone. “The courses also provide an opportunity for growers to visit with each other.”

The decision to cut out the classes was made less onerous by the availability of online classes like those offered by Western Farm Press that meet the CE requirement for county applicator permit holders, noted Francone.

“I like the online classes so much we will be developing a couple of two hour classes for our own Web site,” said Francone. “We have seen the value of what Western Farm Press offers and look forward to working with Farm Press to develop these two new courses.”

Since Western Farm Press began offering the online courses in late summer, 2004, more than 14,000 classes have been completed for credit hours by Cal DPR licensees and county permit holders in virtually all California counties.

Farm Press-developed courses are accredited also in Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington.

Six more classes are under development and will be available online before the end of the year.

All courses on the Farm Press and CAPCA Web sites are free, sponsored by companies like Monsanto, Chemtura, DuPont, Valent, MANA and Western Farm Press.

The courses also are accredited by the California Certified Crop Adviser program.