Father Fred and son Larry Starrh of Starrh and Starrh Ranches, a 12,000-acre diversified family farming operation in Kern County, Calif., know farmers are easy targets in the raging debate over air pollution in the eight-county San Joaquin Valley

"We understand the public’s perception of farming because we are so visible," said Fred Starrh. With tractors cultivating and planting and engines pumping water in full view of the thousands of cars and trucks daily traveling two of the state’s busiest highways, Highway 99 and Interstate 5, Starrh said farming is a "natural target" in the debate over air pollution.

The bulls-eye on agriculture is unfair, according to the Starrhs.

"We have 60 irrigation engines on the 12,000 acres we farm yet people don’t think about the 60 cars and trucks per acre in Bakersfield when they talk about air pollution in the valley," said Larry Starrh.

Farmers contend the rapidly expanding population and the every increasing numbers of cars and trucks on valley roads are also major factors in the valley’s unwanted status as a non-attainment area for federal air quality standards.

Overlook cars, trucks

"People look right past the thousands cars and trucks on the valley roads to see our tractors and diesel engines running in the fields and think that we are somehow responsible for most of the pollution," noted Fred Starrh. "We know what we do on our farm, and we don’t believe farmers are solely responsible for the valley’s air quality problems."

The Starrhs know farmers are outnumbered in any urban-agricultural rock throwing contest over who is the chief polluter. "All we can do is tell our story about how we are doing our part in reducing pollution in the valley," said Fred Starrh. "And, all we ask is that a reasonableness standard be used in adopting air pollution regulations for agriculture."

"We hate dust just as much if not more than anyone else, and that is why we have used an oil-sand material to pave 33 miles of roads on our farm," he said. The oil-sand material is readily available for the Starrhs because they farm near major oil production areas and the oil-sand product sold by oil companies is a by-product for them. Most farmers either run water trucks or oil roads or use other dust suppressant products farmers run to keep dust down not only on roads, but equipment yards as well.

Not only is farm road dust a public relations nightmare, it is also bad for crops. One example of that is that dust flares spider mites, pest of many crops. Dust also damages equipment.

"It has been a gradual thing in paving the roads," said Starrh. And, it started long before the air pollution debate heated up. "We tried to do three or four miles every year until we got it all paved, and we also go back over the roads again after a period of years."

Removes PM10

Paving a dirt road removes a ton of PM10 particles from the air each year, according to John Beyer, state air quality coordinator for the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service. "We figure in a case like the Starrhs where they have paved roads along side fields, they have reduced dust by 83 percent. The only reason it is not 100 percent is because tractors use those roads to turn around after each field pass. There is a small amount of dirt that accumulates on the road in the normal farming operations. Nevertheless, the efforts made by the Starrhs and other farmers in reducing dust has been significant," said Beyer.

NRCS offers matching funds to help growers reduce dust and other emissions. NRCS offers up to $30 per acre as an incentive to reduce dust from fields; $20 toward the cost of chipping annual orchard prunings rather than burning them; $50 to chip rather than burn removed orchards and 50 percent of the cost of oiling farm roads.

"Four years ago we had 192 applications for cost sharing in these programs. This year we had 750 applications for the $2 million we have available for these programs in the non-attainment areas of California," said Beyer.

However, only one in four applicants will be funded this year because there is not enough money to go around, said Beyer. These funds are part of the new farm bill’s extensive conservation title, and Beyer is hopeful funding will continue for the air pollution control efforts over the life of the five-year farm bill.

Interest apparent

"The three to fourfold increase in the number of applications we have received for cost sharing for air pollution abatement efforts from farmers certainly reflects an increasing interest in growers in doing their part to reduce air pollution," said Beyer.

The NRCS dust control program is in addition to $3.5 million to cost share with farmers to replace older diesel irrigation engines with less polluting, EPA-certified stationary engines.

These programs target the eight-county non-attainment area encompassing Kern, Tulare, Kings, Fresno, Madera, Merced, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties along with farming areas in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

The Starrhs have utilized state and federal matching fund programs to oil roads and replace engines, particularly the state-funded Carl Moyer program which has for several years provided funds to replace older engines.

This program has replaced 2,500 of the estimated 4,700 engines operating in the valley.

However, the Starrhs did not apply for matching funds in their latest project of drilling deep irrigation wells and install drip irrigation to mitigate growing uncertainty of surface water deliveries. These wells are equipped with EPA-certified engines to meet non-road exhaust emissions standards.

Even though there are many engines running in the valley, many of them may meet federal emission standards and as such are not major contributors to the valley’s growing pollution problems, noted Fred Starrh.

Cotton drip irrigation

Starrh and Starrh’s well drilling is leading them into a new project for their farm, drip irrigated cotton. Drip is obviously nothing new, but the Starrhs are one of the few SJV producers who have installed drip exclusively for cotton. Many valley producers have installed drip for high value crops and as part of rotation grow cotton using the low volume irrigation system.

"We figure we will grow cotton for 15 years straight with drip," said Starrh. "We have had cotton on one field for 10 years and had the highest we ever had last year.

"With the newer varieties and the high wilt resistance we see today we think we can grow cotton constantly in the same field," said Larry Starrh.

Drip irrigated cotton should use less water than sprinkler irrigated cotton, said Fred Starrh. Well water is 50 percent cheaper than surface water and there is less labor involved with drip because there are no hand lines to move.

"We think we can save about $150 per acre with drip and it costs us $1,000 per acre to install the drip, so using a 10-year pay out, we should be able to save $50 per acre each year on cotton," said Fred Starrh.

"With costs going up like they are and with low cotton prices, things like drip and well water may be the only way we can stay in cotton," he said.

Less cultivation

And, with drip there is less cultivation because irrigation water is confined to the plant row. "We are not planting any herbicide resistant cotton this year on the drip irrigated field, but if you use GMO cotton you may not have to cultivate at all," said Starrh. "As it is, we are using Staple herbicide for early season weed control on the non-GMO cotton we have on drip, and that is reducing tillage," said Larry Starrh.

"We dislike intensely being the target in this air pollution debate," said Fred Starrh. "All we can do is try to tell our story that farmers are doing their part in reducing air pollution.

"Air pollution affects us just like it does everyone else," said Starrh, citing studies done several years ago that show ozone decreases crop yields.

One of the point men in the air pollution debate is Roger Isom, vice president and director of technical services for California Cotton Ginners and Growers Associations in Fresno, Calif.

"The struggle agriculture has is the public perception it has that agriculture is not doing anything to alleviate air pollution," said Isom.

"Agriculture is doing not just a little bit, but a whole lot to reduce air pollution."

He cited the state Carl Moyer engine replacement program as an example. Over half the stationary engines in the non-attainment area have been replaced.

"We think this has a bigger impact on reducing engine emissions than just a one for one engine swap. We contend these Carl Moyer engine replacements are larger engines and therefore have a more significant impact on reducing emissions overall," said Isom.

It is so significant that agriculture contends farmers should not have to file a air quality report and get permits for these engines. However, environmental groups are challenging that.

In debate center

As much as farmers may not like it, they will continue to be in the eye of the air pollution debate as rules get tougher on them as well as on other industries and homeowners in the valley.

As part an effort to reduce PM10 emissions, Isom said new air quality district rules will go into effect Jan. 1 which will require that farmers adopt at least five conservation management practices to reduce emissions and file these plans with the local NRCS office.

Two must involve field operations and harvesting; two involving unpaved and equipment yards and a fifth to reduce burning of agricultural residue.

"We think farmers are doing enough now to be covered with these five mandated management practices," Isom said. "Water and oiling unpaved roads; switching from two-row to five- or six-row cotton pickers; growing Roundup Ready cotton to reduce cultivations and things like that would count toward these five management plans," said Isom.

Hearings are under way on implementing the plan, and Isom is hopeful it will be a matter of farmers validating what they are doing rather than more onerous regulations.

Farmers are not the only ones who will be affected by new air quality rules going into effect on Jan. 1. "These new air quality standards will affect everything from fireplaces in homes to cotton gins," said Isom.

e-mail:hcline@primediabusiness.com