In California, Agriculture Takes Center Stage in Pollution Debate

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 26, 2005

RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- On a clear day, San Joaquin looks like a bucolic farming community, complete with almond groves, cornfields and orange trees. But most of the time the valley -- trapped between the Sierra Nevada and the Coast Ranges, with two major highways running north to south through it -- is smoggy, filled with air that has fostered widespread respiratory disease.

Fifteen percent of the region's children have asthma, a rate three times the national average. Fresno -- the valley's biggest city -- has the third-highest rate of asthma in the country, and the San Joaquin Valley rivals Los Angeles and Houston for the dubious title of worst air quality in the nation. On bad air days, some schools hoist a red flag so parents can keep their children indoors; on good days, they raise a green flag.

Agriculture does not occupy a prominent place in America's environmental policy debates, but farming has arguably more of an impact on the land, air and water than any other sector in the U.S. economy, environmental and industry experts say. In addition to producing airborne emissions, farms take up nearly half of the nation's land, and nutrient-laden runoff from farms affects such waterways as local streams and the Gulf of Mexico.

"The sheer scope of farmland means that unless it is extremely well-managed, it's going to create serious problems," said Tim Searchinger, an agricultural policy specialist at the advocacy group Environmental Defense. "But with some tweaks and a few bold approaches, farmers and ranchers could do a lot of good."

Michael Kleeman, an environmental and civil engineering professor at the University of California at Davis, estimates that agriculture accounts for as much as half of the valley's air pollution.

The health problems caused by agriculture emboldened state Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter) to push to abolish farming's exemption from state air pollution laws. California was at risk of losing federal highway funds because of poor air quality, and Florez argued that farms had to curb their emissions like factories and power plants. By spewing smog-forming gases into the air, the legislature declared, cows had joined cars and trucks as major polluters.

"I wanted them to understand they've got to be part of the solution, not part of the problem," Florez said. "It's a cultural change for them."

Although California farmers are now legally accountable for emissions, environmentalists, regulators and farmers are feuding over how far the government can go in regulating things such as cow emissions and aging diesel equipment in the San Joaquin Valley. About a fifth of the country's milk production now takes place in this region, well more than that produced in Wisconsin.

This summer, the state Air Resources Board ruled that any existing farm with more than 1,000 milk cows had to apply for a permit on the grounds that dairies -- which release volatile organic compounds and ammonia -- rank as major polluters. Volatile organic compounds create smog when combined with nitrogen oxide, while ammonia reacts with that smog to form fine-particle pollution.

Dairy farmers have assailed the science underlying the rules and blocked a plan that would have made them install technology to capture methane and other gases that cows emit.

"We're not convinced our cows are worse than all the cars and trucks in the world," said Michael Marsh, who heads Western United Dairymen, which represents just over half of the area's 1,900 dairy farmers. Marsh estimates that installing manure digesters could cost the industry $1 billion. "If we're going to have this kind of mandate, how are we going to pay for it?" he asked.

Tom Mendes's family has been dairy farming in California's Central Valley for three generations, ever since his grandfather arrived from Portugal. But Mendes has told his 19-year-old son not to follow him into what he calls a dying way of life.

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