There is a new sheriff in Maricopa County, Ariz. No, Joe Arpaio, Arizona's most famous lawman since Wyatt Earp, is still the man with the big badge in the county.

Arpaio is the sheriff who dresses county inmates in pink underwear to prevent them from stealing it and feeds them bologna sandwiches to save money. Arpaio is known as America's toughest lawman.

He will soon be getting competition from, AIR SHERIFF, whose job it will be to clean up the metropolitan Phoenix, Ariz., area not of criminals, but dust.

However, Air Sheriff will be a more kind and gentle lawman — more to the style of Smokey the Bear than the former Tombstonians Earp Brothers and Doc Holliday.

Mesa, Ariz., cotton producer Kevin Rogers even believes the lawman he helped create will be someone others will want to emulate because it could be the way to keep government bureaucrats out of farmers' “air.”

Model program

“We think we have created a model program for regulating dust from farms and rural areas that can be taken to other parts of the country,” said Rogers, who farms cotton both in Mesa and Scottsdale. Those two towns are in the in heart one of the fasted growing metropolitan areas in the U.S. Rogers is one of five farmers who over the past three years helped create an extensive list of dust abatement best management practices for farmers to follow. They are so good that the federal government has backed away from hard-nosed dust control enforcement measures in a 2,700-square-mile area where three million urbanites and about 1,000 farmers co-exist.

Air Sheriff is after a desperado named PM10 , the baddest of the bad hombres for farmers. Farmers shake in their boots when they hear PM10 is in town.

PM10 is a tiny outlaw. You cannot even see him. PM10 is particle matter 10 micrometers or less in diameter. It is dust so small it is seven times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

The Environmental Protection Agency says there are too many PM10 s the air, and people are suffering respiratory ailments because of them. The federal government passed the Clean Air Act to get rid of them and other pollutants. EPA claims farmers not just in Arizona, but everywhere are responsible for some — if not a lot — of PM10 s. Farmers do not agree with that. They say urbanites driving down the roads, factories and others contribute just as much, if not more, PM10 s.

While scientists and others are trying to find out exactly who is the biggest PM10 contributor, producers continue to reap considerable blame for PM10 s. After all, when they till the soil, harvest crops or just drive down farm roads in their pickups, dust follows and people and regulators see it, assuming therefore, farmers must be the biggest PM10 culprits.

Science is beginning to dispute that, buts the air is still dirty, and Phoenix is one of the worst areas in the nation. It is a rapidly growing desert metropolitan area that has not met the Federal Clean Air Act for a long time. It gets only about six inches of rain a year and there's little to hold down the dust when the wind blows.

Five years ago it got so bad EPA issued Maricopa County an edict to reduce dust emissions from unpaved roads, unpaved parking lots, vacant lots and agriculture or face the financial consequences of lost federal money.

Agriculture is a big part of the county's economy, amounting to about $600 million annually. There is probably more farming within the metropolitan Phoenix area than any other large city in America. Housing demand is unquenchable and Phoenix is the poster city for urban sprawl, often leapfrogging farmland, leaving a vast landscape of checkerboard of farmland and houses and industrial parks. It is also some of the most productive farmland in America. The sun almost never stops shining in Arizona. Apply water, and the land will grow an abundance of almost anything.

Had two choices

When the federal EPA clean-up edict came down, Rogers said farmers had two choices: let the federal government shove down their throats likely onerous regulations or create for themselves “palatable” regulations that would satisfy EPA's edict to reduce PM10 s

“It has taken us three years, but we think we have come up with what we think is a viable list of best management practices that will work to address the PM 10 issue,” said Rogers, a member of the governor's agricultural best management practices committee created in 1998 and charged with developing an agricultural PM10 general permit.

“Some folks in agriculture wanted us to battle the EPA over the PM10 issue,” said Dan Thelander a Chandler, Ariz., farmer and chairman of the governor's committee.

Instead, farmers decided to kill EPA with kindness and play ball with the agency, coming up with their own set of rules. They came up with “Guide to Agricultural PM10 Best Management Practices.” It was so good that EPA removed the portion of the federal air cleanup plan for agriculture and may extend the attainment target date until 2007.

“I think we helped EPA understand that one rule does not fit all,” said Thelander.

“We still do not agree with some of the rules of the Clean Air Act — like crediting farmers in other parts of the county for irrigating their land and not crediting Arizona where we are 100 percent irrigated,” said Rogers.

“What we did was hold our nose and go forward with our own program. It probably kept us out of hot water and may for a long time,” said Rogers, who recently was appointed to the USDA's national air quality task force.

The program is now in the “educational process,” informing everyone who farms 10 acres or more around Phoenix or its suburbs what will be required when the law becomes effective Jan. 1, 2002.

By definition, all farmers within the Maricopa County PM10 Non-Attainment area, automatically become abatement district permit holders. This permit must include specific measures to control dust on their land in three categories, tillage and harvest; non-cropland and cropland.

Under each category there are 10 to 14 recommended best management practices farmers like Rogers and Thelander believe will control PM10 s.

Must select bmps

A farmer must select at least one BMP under each category to be in compliance.

“A lot of farmers are already practicing many of the best management practices listed,” according to Pat Clay, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension field crops agent for Maricopa County. Clay is helping in the educational phase of the program.

“We are seeing a lot more conservation tillage and many of the things farmers are doing qualify as best management practices. Roundup Ready cotton by virtue of its reduced tillage element is another example,” said Clay.

“Watering roadways prior to harvest is another BMP most vegetable farmers practice,” said Clay.

“Some of the BMPs are simple, like reduced vehicle speed, and some can be more expensive, like planting wind breaks,” said Rogers.

“It is the growers choice. We call it a voluntary/mandatory program. It is mandatory in that farmers must select BMPs, but it is voluntary as to what he chooses to do — but he must do something and record it,” said Rogers.

“You need to keep records,” said Theresa Pella, manager of the Quality Planning Section of the State Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). That is the “sheriff's office.”

The Air Sheriff will visit a farm only when there is a dust complaint. If the lawman comes to visit, all the farmer has to do is produce a permit showing he has complied with at least one BMP under each category. And, he has two days to come up with the paperwork.

“Recordkeeping is going to be very important in this process,” said Pella. “Farmers need to record when they did things — like watering roads or make note of number of days after a rain they tilled the field. If they disked their field only a few days after a rain to avoid dust, they need to record that.”

It is going to take three strikes before the Air Sheriff hauls any farmer to the hoosegow.

Repeated violations

No, no one will go to jail for kicking up dust. Pella said there must be repeated violations before DEQ will even fine a farmer. And, it will certainly be no where near the $25,000 fines EPA can levy against polluters.

“EPA is not involved in the enforcement of this program,” said Pella. “And it is not tied to the Maricopa County air quality program which monitors construction sites and can fine people for dust pollution. Farming is not even a part of that county program.”

“EPA has been very supportive of our efforts,” said Rogers. Those efforts were considerable involving many with the governor's BMP committee. Along with the farmers there were several state and federal agencies, the Arizona Cotton growers Association, Western Growers Association, Arizona Nursery Association and the University of Arizona were involved in the governor's group creating the program.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service reports American families and individuals spend, on average, 10.4 percent of their disposable personal income for food.

The percentage of disposable personal income needed for food has declined during the last 25 years. Food Check-Out Day in 1970 would have been 13 days later, Feb. 20. Food is more affordable because of the widening gap between growth in per-capita income and the amount of money spent for food, according to USDA.

They've pledged to install two million miles of conservation buffers by 2002 in an effort to improve soil, air and water quality; enhance wildlife habitat; restore biodiversity; and create scenic landscapes. Who are they: American's farmers, ranchers and rural landowners.

Of all the pesticides sold in California, only one-third, by weight, is used for agricultural purposes.

How much of each $1 spent for food actually reaches the farmers and ranchers who produce the food? Twenty cents — down from 31 cents in 1980. The remaining 80 cents of the grocery dollar are spent for processing, marketing, sales and distribution.

President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation creating the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1862. Georgia established the first state department of agriculture in 1874.

The farm labor and acreage to produce 100 bushels of corn have been dramatically reduced thanks to advances in farm equipment and fertilizer. Back in 1850, it took 2.5 acres and from 75-90 hours of hard work to plow, hand plant, weed and harvest 100 bushels of corn, Today, that same 100 bushels of corn takes only two hours of labor and one acre of land.

There are 275 recognized breeds of cattle in the world; more than 40 breeds are produced in California. California ranks fifth in the United States in total number of cattle with five million head.

Farming has come a long way since the 1930s when only 13 percent of all farms had electricity and only a third had phones. In 1998, California farmers invested $2.4 million in computers to operate irrigation systems. About 40 percent of California farms reported using computers in their business operations in 1999.

It is reported that more than 87 percent of America's farmers own cell phones.

In the 10 years between 1988 and 1998, close to 420,000 acres of California land used for crops and grazing were converted to urban uses.

California has consistently had more female farm operators than the national average. In the years between 1978 and 1997 the number almost doubled. In 1997 13.6 percent of California farms were owned by women, compared with an 8.6 percent national average.

From producers of food and fiber to grocery stores and the food court at shopping malls, agriculture and its related industries generate jobs for more than 22 million people.

Sixty percent of California farmers are between the ages of 44 and 70. There seems to be a trend toward fewer young people choosing farming as an occupation, with only 20 percent of farmers under the age of 44; by 1997 the proportion of California farmers over 70 rose from 13 percent in 1987 to nearly 20 percent.

U.S. athletes depend on the cattle industry. Leather to make sports equipment uses hides from 100,000 cattle each year.

On average, agriculture uses about 43 percent of the state's available water.

Almost half of California farmers don't consider farming their principal occupation and must work off the farm to make ends meet.

Total U.S. agricultural exports in the early 1800s were mainly tobacco, rice, indigo, grain and meat products with an average annual value of about $23 million. In 1998, California led the nation in agricultural exports with more than 50 principal commodities valued at more than $6.6 billion.

E-mail: harry_cline@intertec.com