A couple of months ago the California fertilizer industry received some encouraging news: After four years of following strict statewide guidelines concerning heavy metals content, the California Department of Food and Agriculture revealed that the industry had a near-perfect safety record.

According to the CDFA, the agency randomly sampled about 2,330 fertilizing materials from Jan. 1, 2002, to Dec. 31, 2005. From these samples, 605 fertilizer samples were analyzed for heavy metals such as lead, arsenic and cadmium. The department found only six incidents, about less than 1 percent of analyzed samples, exceeding the regulatory limits for at least one metal.

Since California’s heavy metals standards are considered the most restrictive in the world, this valuable tidbit of state research was welcomed as both a cause of pride and celebration.

“The CDFA’s latest sampling suggests that fertilizer companies throughout California are doing everything in their power to protect public health from concerns raised related to heavy metal in fertilizer,” said Renee Pinel, president/CEO of Western Plant Health Association (WPHA) in Sacramento, a nonprofit trade group the represents hundreds of members active in the California fertilizer industry.

This got me to mulling over all the various ways that members of our state’s fertilizer industry have safeguarded, protected, informed and reached out to communities over the years to assure the proper use and availability of fertilizers to growers and consumers. After all, it is no small responsibility to continually increase crop yields, maintain crop health, keep pests at bay and do it safely while feeding the world at a reasonable price.

Tall order? You bet. But here are some ways the state’s fertilizer industry goes about its daily business, mostly behind the curtains and without much fanfare.

■ A good place to start is with the Fertilizer and Education Program (FREP). This program is administered by CDFA, but is financed by a mill assessment paid by fertilizer manufacturers and distributors. Since its inception in 1990, almost $7 million has been spent through FREP on research projects in California.

So far, 105 research projects have been completed or are ongoing, including 34 nitrate specific projects and Best Management Practices for fruit, vine crops, vegetable crops, field crops, horticulture crops, irrigation practices and educational outreach programs. In fact, FREP provided the research to implement the heavy metals standards cited above at absolutely no cost to the growers.

■ To date, the California Fertilizer Foundation has donated almost $100,000 to more than 125 California schools for campus garden projects. CFF’s goal is to increase the understanding and awareness of agriculture in California’s youth through the firsthand participation of growing and getting food from the field to the fork.

■ The California Certified Crop Adviser program is a voluntary certification program for individuals that provide advice to growers on crop management. Advisers help save growers money and meet the environmental challenges of California agriculture. The program is an “industry” certification program, not a government licensing program. In California, there are more than 400 CCAs providing advice to growers, with an emphasis on fertilizer and plant nutrient management issues.

The Western Fertilizer Handbook, produced by the Western Plant Health Association (200,000 copies in circulation so far), is aimed at individuals seeking practical, production-oriented, problem solving information. It is intended as an educational text to develop a better understanding of western agronomic principles and practices to provide a convenient source of reference about subjects related to soil, water, plants and fertilizer. A companion publication, Western Fertilizer Handbook – Second Horticulture Edition, addresses nontraditional agricultural settings, such as lawns and gardens, nurseries and urban landscapes.

■ Lastly, in light of the Oklahoma City bombing in which ammonia nitrate was used as an explosive, and the 9/11 attacks that further intensified the fear of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, the fertilizer industry has been working closely with federal and state authorities to prevent future attacks using this product. In 2005, WPHA sponsored and got passed AB 924, which tightened security protections in obtaining the product.

The key component of the bill was that the responsibility of reporting ammonia nitrate sales was vested in the fertilizer manufacturers and retailers – thereby allowing growers to avoid applying for permits to purchase ammonia nitrate and other types of fertilizers of potential concern. Through this legislation, distributors and retailers now must keep identification photos, as well as written records of who and where products were delivered for sale.

These important protections, services and contributions by California’s fertilizer industry are just some of the many benefits afforded to California communities, growers and consumers. WPHA believes that these sincere gestures are proof that agriculture and the fertilizer industry are fully engaged in its products, environmental stewardship and in safeguarding the world’s food supply. And this is something all Californians can take pride and comfort in.

Richard Cornett is director of communications for the Western Plant Health Association(WPHA) in Sacramento. Information in this article was supplied by WPHA)