California agriculture has survived well despite a regulatory morass that until now has revolved pretty much around pesticides.

Now there’s a new quagmire emerging: fertilizer use regulations. Sacramento water quality attorney Tess Dunham told the Western Plant Health Association’s annual conference in Carlsbad, Calif., what members did not want to hear about fertilizer while the new director of California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) was delivering surprisingly upbeat news and praise for the pesticide industry.

Brian Leahy’s appointment as DPR director by Gov. Jerry Brown earlier this year was met with skepticism by many in agriculture because of his background in organic farming and with environmental groups often at odds with the majority of farmers and ranchers.

However, at WPHA, Leahy had high praise for rank and file agriculture in meeting substantial challenges like Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and air quality and providing a safe, pesticide-free food supply.

One of the gnarliest issues facing California agriculture is finding replacements for fumigants like methyl bromide. Leahy pledged support and funding to find effective alternatives.

DPR is also becoming more open with Leahy’s brown bag lunches, where ag groups are invited to DPR in Sacramento to make presentations to department personnel to better acquaint them with what’s going on in the fields.

Leahy provided a straightforward view of DPR in meeting new challenges with scientific approaches.

Dunham, however, painted a patchwork quilt of the contrasting water quality regulations ahead for agriculture. How farmers meet new groundwater and surface water regulations will depend on where they farm.

“We do not do anything easy in California,” remarked Dunham, detailing all the state and regional agencies meddling in state and federal water quality regulations.

Much of what is happening on the water quality regulatory front focuses on two of the nine regional water quality control boards; Central Coast (Region 3) and the Central Valley (Region 5).

Region 3 is probably the most intensely farmed area of the state, due to costly, high value vegetable production. Regulators are dealing with farmers individually on permitting conditional waivers.

“The term waiver is totally misleading. Nothing is waived here,” she said.

Region 5 covers the majority of the state’s agriculture. It stretches from the California-Oregon border to the Tehachapis in Southern Kern County.

There are 25,000 farmers in this region. Unlike the coastal areas, Region 9 is complying with the surface and groundwater quality issues through producer coalitions. Farmers pay a fee into these coalitions which conduct monitoring and help growers develop management plans to ensure water quality.

Draconian regulations

Region 3 has adopted the most draconian set of rules for fertilizers and pesticide use in the state. Irrigation is also part of these management rules.

The regs are on appeal, however. As they now stand the Region 3 water quality regulations would require growers individually to report all that’s applied to a crop, including water, to the regional board. Coastal growers are also facing a mandatory nitrogen balance of one-to-one or 100 percent utilization. Dunham says this will be “virtually impossible” to achieve.

One of the contentious issues in Region 5 groundwater management is monitoring wells: how many and where. Dunham predicted it will likely be similar to the dairy nitrate monitoring program. A program is in place for the 1,400 dairies in the Central Valley. There are 200 monitoring wells. Dairies pay $500 initially and then are charged $80 per month to manage the well monitoring.

These water quality rules are evolving, especially for groundwater and nitrates. However, Dunham said eventually fertilizer use reporting will become another regulatory requirement for California. It may come through the California Department of Food and Agriculture or through the regional boards, but it’s definitely coming, she says.

Leahy may be an apprehensive enigma to some, but he made it clear he had high confidence in his department’s 400 employees and high praise for California agriculture. Leahy has a farming background. A native Californian, his family farmed in the Ontario area.

In 1980, he became one of California’s pioneering organic and biodiversity farmers when he took over operations of Cherokee Ranch Inc., a 900-acre rice farm in Butte County that converted to organic farming practices. He leased out the farm in 1992, but owned the property until 2003.

From 1992 to 1994, he operated the 800-acre organic corn, soybean, alfalfa and cattle Ackerlund farm in Fremont, Neb.

He served as executive director for the California Association of Resource Conservation Districts from 2004 to 2006, where he was closely involved with the Williamson Act and was the executive director for the California Certified Organic Farmers from 2000 to 2004.

However, he did not single out either organic or conventional agriculture in his WPHA presentation.

Rather, he detailed the role of DPR in spending millions on residue testing of the food supply produced by California agriculture, finding “extremely low, if any residue. This is good for consumer confidence in a very safe food supply.”

He applauded agriculture for being one of the “quickest adopters of technology.” And that includes chemistry. He praised agrichemical manufacturers for spending millions of dollars to develop new chemical formulations to reduce Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) to meet air quality standards in the Central Valley.

In praise of pesticides

Pesticides are the most regulated product in commerce and “with 37.5 million of California’s 38 million people calling themselves environmentalists,” Leahy says DPR and California agriculture face significant challenges.  However, he believes both are up to the tests. DPR continues to monitor air for pesticides, “but we are not finding much. We are doing a really good job of keeping drift down. Use is not the same as exposure, and we are showing that with our monitoring.”

DPR has funded $500,000 in research to find fumigant alternatives for the strawberry industry. It is part of a “five-year roadmap” for new strawberry production techniques.

He strongly supports finding new, effective fumigants to keep strawberries in California and “not lose strawberries” to Mexico.

He identified many more issues facing agriculture, like of pyrethroids in water sediments. However, “by working together we can meet those challenges.”

DPR is a “science based organization” bolstered by 125 PhDs on staff who he pledged will use science in its regulatory role and “not some broad based assumptions.”

He praised the state’s ag industry as being “very professional” and focused on solving problems with increasingly fewer human health problems.

Unfortunately, he did not have the same praise for the urban sector. He pledged to look more closely at consumer and industrial use of pesticides.

Pesticides, he said, are the foundation of keeping the public healthy and eating a safe, healthy and nutritional food supply.

He reminds the “activist community often” of the benefits of pesticides and to look at them from a risk/benefit perspective.

He likes to point out that more people die from malaria caused by mosquitoes than are killed in war, and pesticides are imperative in controlling mosquitoes.