California farmers, dairymen and ranchers must comply with the most demanding regulations in the nation, far more onerous than any of their counterparts in other states.

They must comply with a labyrinth of local, state and federal rules as well as regional differences within the California environmental regulations, and it’s costly. For example, California citrus growers pay as much as $400 more per acre to farm than their counterparts in Texas. That is the case across all agricultural ventures in California.

However, California agriculture has not only survived this dubious distinction but has thrived. California’s state pesticide reporting and monitoring laws started the modern day regulatory era in the mid 1970s.

In 1975, California agriculture gross farm income was $8.5 billion. Now, as the No. 1 agricultural state in the nation, it’s roughly $38 billion and growing.

Pesticides have long been the regulatory lightning rod in the state, but that is changing rapidly, with a focus on water quality and nutrients.

A recent University of California, Davis legislatively mandated study on nitrates in groundwater painted an ominous picture of what the regulatory future might be for the state’s farmers and dairymen.

(For more, see: Groundwater nitrate issue dumped in agriculture’s lap)

It basically said 250,000 people are drinking unsafe, nitrate-tainted pumped groundwater in the Tulare Lake Basin of the Central San Joaquin Valley and the Salinas Valley and that the problem will only get worse unless another web of costly regulations are imposed atop already burdened agriculture.

Some are even saying a bureaucracy like the California Department of Pesticide Regulation should be created to deal with water quality issues. The state’s pesticide laws mandated by the state legislature are the most onerous in the nation, more stringent than the federal EPA. There is a state governmental label and licensing system that covers people who recommend, handle and apply pesticides. Most farmers would be happy to see those laws go away. However, they would also admit that they are good in that they mandate safe and reasonable pesticide use.

“We know what goes on when and where because we have records of everything we do,” said Daniel Burns, a Merced County, Calif. farmer.

The cornerstone of the California pesticide use program is the licensed Pest Control Adviser (PCA). There are 3,000 PCAs in the state who scout for pests and makes control recommendations to farmers.

There is another category of professional California ag consultant that is playing an increasingly larger role in this emerging era of water and nutrient regulations; it is the Certified Crop Adviser (CCA).

CCA is a voluntary certification program for individuals who provide advice to growers, much like the PCA. CCAs are also certified in pest management like PCAs, but their most important expertise emphasizes fertilizer and plant nutrient issues, since they cannot write recommendations without a PCA license.

Nitrate controversy

California CCAs meet standards set by the International CCA program, administered by the American Society of Agronomy and a California CCA board. There are approximately 12,000 CCAs in the U.S. and Canada.

There are 560 CCAs in California now.

Like PCAs, CCAs must take extensive exams, administered twice a year. They include both an international test on nutrient management, soil and water management, crop management and pest management and a California exam on nutrients, soils, water and crop management. They must also meet educational and experience requirements. A licensed California PCA is exempted from the pest management section of the CCA exam. CCA licenses are renewed every 2 years with a 40-hour continuing education requirement over that period.

The difference between the PCA and the CCA is that pesticides are legally labeled for how and when they are to be used and that is what PCAs must follow by law. There are no use labels on fertilizers.

Although the CCA program is not governmental, it is recognized by at least two government agencies. CCAs are certified to assist growers in preparing plans for growers applying for Natural Resource Conservation Service EQIP funds. CCAs are also are certified by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality

Control Board to prepare and certify nutrient management plans required by law for dairy producers under their jurisdiction. The California CCA board offers training for a specialty certification in manure management.

California CCA directors also recently voted to accept the recommendation from California Department of Food and Agriculture Fertilizer Research and Education Program

(FREP) to train and certify CCAs in CDFAs Nutrient Management Plans.

This effort is tied to what is likely to be a statewide mandate to develop NMPs for all farms. It is already happening in some areas. There are nine regional water quality boards in the state which have been monitoring water quality for contaminants. Two have reached the stage where they will soon require nutrient management plans for some farmers in their district. These are the Central Valley Water Quality Board and the Central Coast Water Quality Control Board. Some farmers within those two areas will soon be required to develop NMPs, and CCAs are expected to be the accredited professionals who can aid farmers in developing those plans. These are expected to be required by 2014.

The latest round in the growing water quality and nutrient confrontation between growers and regulators is the so-called Harter report from the University of California, Davis. This study identified nitrates as one of California’s widespread groundwater contaminants.

The CDFA/CCA program, as well as the impending NMPs mandated by the water quality control boards are not officially linked to the Harter UC nitrate report, however, the issue is the same: water quality.

Sebastian Braun is the new chairman of the California CCA and says the Harter report is a rehash of a long-known issue.

Legacy contamination

Braun, regional agronomist for Yara North America based in Northern California, has been a certified CCA for 12 years and a PCA for four.

“It’s a problem that we have known about for a long time. We call it legacy contamination. Nitrates have been accumulating for decades,” he says. “It will take decades to solve the problem.”

The CCA will play a role in this issue by aiding growers in developing improved nitrogen management plans. “I don’t think every grower is optimizing nitrogen management in every field, and we can help there,” he says.

However, Braun added “there is not a whole lot of what I call bad management on the farm, either. It is not good business to be a bad manager today.”

He believes, as this issue comes under more scrutiny, regulators will find that farming today is dramatically different than it was just 15 years ago. The past cannot be used to judge today’s farming.

Two things are important to understand in these nitrate issues that are often overlooked, he says.

One is growers no long flood or furrow irrigate as much as they once did simply because there is less water available. Drip or micro irrigations are common to reduce water use and more precisely deliver nutrients and pesticides. That means less water is being applied that would leach the nitrogen.

“Secondly, nitrogen is no longer a cheap commodity as it used to be. Fertilizer is a fairly expensive input today. That is not going to change,” he says.

Those two things have acted as economic incentive to mitigate nitrogen leaching, believes Braun.

Rather than forcing unnecessary change on the way producers farm, Braun believes agriculture “can definitely engage” the public in informing it on what farmers are doing to mitigate nitrogen leaching.

Braun believes the CCA is the “most qualified” to deal with nitrogen management to the public and on the farm. “I would hope that the growing role of the CCA in agriculture is not addressed as just another way to meet regulations. CCAs have the knowledge to help farmers improve nutrient management that will benefit them and the environment,” he says. This is not just a California issue. The groundwater and surface water quality issue will spread across the nation as the federal government demand cleaner water, according to Braun, and CCAs nationwide will play a bigger role there.

A CCA certification gives comfort to the farmer that the CCA from he is soliciting advice is fully qualified to give soil, water and nutrient recommendations, according to Allan Romander of Modesto, Calif., a CCA and PCA. Romander is retired from a major ag retailer, but remains active in CCA affairs. He is past CCA chairman and now board treasurer and has been very active in promoting the CCA program.

The day is coming in California when all farmers must have NMPs. “We cannot avoid it. It is as sure as death and taxes,” he said.

This he said will result in most PCAs also carrying CCA certificates.