FRESNO, Calif. — As California agriculture navigates the rocks and shoals of tough air-quality regulations, one expert close to the issues says the tide is turning and help is on the horizon.

According to Roger Isom, vice president and director of technical services for the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Associations, reasonable solutions grounded in science are taking shape.

"For the first time in my memory, science is starting to win out in our regulatory struggle," he said during the recent 23rd Annual Agribusiness Management Conference in Fresno.

The California cotton industry, Isom explained, started measuring emissions from tillage and other tractor operations about 10 years ago to build a proper foundation for standards for the San Joaquin Valley. They are compiling readings of instruments in the field showing emissions for various operations and providing that data to EPA.

Previously, he said, the only dust measurements used by EPA followed assumptions from a single example of disking of highly erodible soil in Kansas. Among the absurdities: EPA officials who had never set foot in the valley simply assumed that alfalfa was disked 11 times a year.

"The EPA numbers, based on the Kansas example, showed our growers were responsible for some 400 tons of emissions per day, but our inventory showed it was less than 100 tons per day, just by taking actual measurements in the field."

Pinpointing emissions

As the studies continue, the industry is pinpointing exactly what, when, and where emissions occur, and developing ways to reduce them.

Isom, formerly with the San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control Districts before he took his present job in 1992, said state legislation to expand the Carl Moyer Memorial Air Quality Standards Attainment Program is aiding the effort to clean up California air.

The program provides funds for cost-sharing incentives to correct oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and particulate matter emissions from various engine-powered equipment. Isom said in the past five years, for example, SJV growers have replaced 3,500 engines to reduce NOx emissions by 3,000 tons per year.

"Those are the kinds of action that are going to help us get over the hump" with compliance with air quality regulations, he said.

Of benefit too, he said, is USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), which has provided for oiling of over 800 miles of unpaved roads in the SJV during the past five years, to eliminate 640 tons of PM-10 emissions per year.

Isom said progress is also being made with ACT, the Air Coalition Team, a group of 16 agricultural, water, oil, and construction organizations formed last year to combat lawsuits brought by environmental interests. ACT has been involved in two cases, and both were dismissed.

Cotton efforts

Cotton growers have mobilized to meet conservation management practice rules, such as revising harvesting, land preparation, and other operations, to improve air quality, even though many were already meeting some of the requirements.

"We did 3,000 CMPs six months before they were due. When we’d have meetings we’d get RSVPs for 100 but 200 growers would show up. There’s no other program like it," he said.

Cotton gins have held workshops to make changes for compliance, and by demonstrating practices already in use they have been able to get onerous rule proposals changed.

"We grow the best quality food and fiber in the world and we do it in the toughest regulatory environment. We are going to get past this thing, we are going to get the credit for helping to solve the problem, and I see a light at the end of the tunnel," Isom concluded.

Other speakers

Among others on the conference agenda, Robert Schramm, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist for several issues concerning agriculture, in profiling world trade, said too much time is spent in the nation’s capitol discussing trade policy without implementing it. Although Congress has responsibility for foreign commerce, it has passed that responsibility to the executive branch.

The interests of fruit and vegetable exports, he noted, have been negotiated away to those of manufacturers, "the Boeings, John Deeres, and Caterpillars," or program crops that do benefit from international trade agreements.

Panelist Mike Wade, executive director of the Agricultural Water Management Council, said agriculture has increased its water use efficiency materially, producing 67 percent more crop tonnage than 30 years ago from slightly less water than it had then.

"But we can’t look to such increases in the future unless we fight hard to maintain the water resources we have for farming in California," he stated. Meanwhile, population is rising faster than food production in the state.

Food safety question

Some people, Wade said, contend cheap food can be obtained from Central America, South America, or China. "But these are the same people who want strict policies on food safety and worker safety practices, wages, and various other rules and regulations. So they are willing to forgo our control of the food supply to foreign competitors, who may or may not be able to meet food safety standards."

The water management community is caught between increasing needs in the state and already insufficient storage that is being shifted to environmental use.

Meanwhile, Wade said, 18.2 million acre-feet in run-off is being released to the sea each year. That’s twice the amount of water used by all of northern California.

"We are spending an horrendous amount of money on water conservation and recycling, when we could be spending money on new storage to provide for not only supply but drought protection."

State Senator Charles Poochigian, whose legislation aimed at reform of workers’ compensation was signed in April, said the effects of the bill may not be realized until late in 2005.

The bill came about to remedy high costs to California employers, an average of $6.30 per $100 of payroll, or 2-1/2 times the national average of $2.46.

The reason for the uncertainty of the effect is, according to Poochigian, too little competition between insurance carriers at the moment. Some 25 companies have left the market in recent years.

"But there are carriers outside and inside the state who think there will be a restoration in this market," he said. "Self-insuring entities among public agencies, non-profits, and private enterprise tell me they have already seen substantial improvement in their accounts."