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October 2005, Volume 11, Number 4

California: Commodities, Air, Water

California's farm sales reached a record $31.8 billion in 2004, up almost $5 billion from 2003 due to higher prices for many commodities.

Ventura county has long been a citrus and vegetable producer, but today its leading commodities are strawberries and nursery products. The county's farm sales were $1.3 billion in 2004, including $364 million from strawberries and $222 million from nursery products, some produced in former orange groves.

US avocado consumption is expected to reach 440,000 tons in 2005, up 80 percent from 2000, with Mexican growers in western Michoacan providing 100,000 tons of avocados to the US, doubling 2004 exports because Mexican imports are allowed in 47 states year-round in 2005. (Chile also provides 100,000 tons of avocados to the US).

The growth in the avocado industry has helped to keep migrants at home. There are 23 avocado packing plants around Uruapan, a city of 250,000 in western Michoacan, and wages for field workers employed by the 2,500 growers certified to ship to the US have risen by a third since 2000. In 2007, California, Florida and Hawaii will be open to Mexican avocados as well, but California acreage and production have been stable, as consumption rises.

Iran produces about 55 percent of the world's pistachios and California grows 20 percent. However, California production is expanding rapidly, with bearing acreage reaching 100,000 acres in 2005 and yields (almost 4,000 pounds per acre) and prices ($1.25 a pound in 2004) at record levels.

Air Pollution. California's San Joaquin Valley ranks with Los Angeles and Houston as the area with dirtiest air in the US. The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District reported in August 2005 that dairy cows, each of which produces an estimated 19.3 pounds of gases called volatile organic compounds a year, are the major cause of San Joaquin Valley smog. Most of the gases come from swallowing and regurgitating food, rumination or "chewing the cud."

The San Joaquin Valley has 2.5 million dairy cows, about 20 percent of the US herd, and dairies with 1,295 cows or more will have to obtain air-operating permits and comply with regulations aimed at reducing emissions. Critics of the growing dairy industry say that, with up to 20 percent of San Joaquin Valley children suffering from asthma, more regulation is overdue.

Land-Use Easements. Many farmers sign land-use easements under which they agree not to develop their land for housing in exchange for payments and tax breaks. California easements are defined as agreements that retain "land predominantly in its natural, scenic, historical, agricultural, forested or open-space condition," and voter-approved bonds have set aside almost $3 billion for land purchases or easements.

There are plans to require a public registry of easements and ensure that they satisfy minimum conditions after controversy over an easement agreement at the 7,200-acre Las Tablas Ranch in San Luis Obispo County. The ranch's easement includes permission for "timber management" that resulted in cutting oak trees. An investigation revealed that two other trusts rejected the ranch's request for an easement because of the oak cutting, raising questions about "easement shopping." In exchange for the easement, the ranch received saleable credits, selling at least 119 for at least $10,000 each to developers who wanted to build houses elsewhere in the county.

Water. The 1,600 miles of levees that channel water flowing into and through the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys are the state's responsibility, according to a recent court ruling. In 1986, levees protecting Marysville failed, flooding homes and businesses. Almost 20 years later, the state is paying $464 million to 3,000 people for flood damage, raising questions about future liability for flooding as housing on flood plains expands. (Most of the Marysville payments are interest, as flood damage was estimated at $100 million).

In Peter Paterno vs. State of California, an appeals court ruled that, as the state took increased responsibility for levees that protect 500,000 people, 200,000 structures and two million acres of farmland, it must inspect them and evaluate maintenance by local authorities.

The five-year-old CalFed program, which governs the fresh water for two of three state residents via the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, was dealt a setback in October 2005 by a state appeals court that ruled that parts of the program's environmental review were inadequate. The CalFed program was created to balance the state's water needs with protection of the delta, including its fish, and the court said that its review did not consider the effects of reducing water exports from the delta to Central and Southern California.

The state had maintained that, given population growth, reducing water deliveries from the Delta was not an option. The 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento ruled that reducing water deliveries was an option CalFed should have considered, since "smaller water exports from the Bay-Delta region ...might, in turn, lead to smaller population growth due to the unavailability of water to support such growth."

The Environmental Working Group released a report in August 2005 that dubbed many Central Valley Project farms "double dippers" because they got subsidized water to grow subsidized crops. A fourth of the subsidized CVP water in 2002 went to cotton and rice farmers who also got crop subsidy payments. The EWG called some dairies triple dippers because they received subsidized water to grow corn for which they received crop subsidies, and they produced milk and cheese that was subsidized.

Farms receiving $2 million or more in combined crop and water subsidies in 2002 included Dresick Farms Inc, Burford Ranch, Sumner Peck Ranch, Starrh & Starrh Cotton Growers and Harris Farms.

Should farmers be allowed to spread waste water from processing plants on their fields? Over 200 food processors spread waste water on land, but the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board says that in many cases this waste water pollutes shallow ground water. Food processors say that no one drinks shallow ground water, while the Control Board says that polluted shallow water can travel deeper, polluting drinking water. Hilmar Cheese in Merced County routinely violated waste water guidelines in disposing of its waste water.

The US Supreme Court will hear two cases from Michigan in its 2005-06 term that challenge the authority of the federal government to regulate wetlands. The Clean Water Act gives the federal government authority to block pollution in "the waters of the United States." The question is how close wetlands that are "adjacent" to larger rivers or lakes must be to come under federal regulation.

The federal government says that wetlands as part of complex ecosystems that must be kept clean to preserve the quality of the larger bodies of water they ultimately feed. In a 2001 case, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could not use the Clean Water Act to protect small, shallow ponds in Illinois just because they are used by migratory birds.

Chris Kraul, "Mexican Avocado Industry Reaping Fruits of Trade Deal," Los Angeles Times, October 3, 2005. Tim Reiterman, "Ranch's Easement Spawns Controversy," Los Angeles Times, August 15, 2005. Miguel Bustillo, "In San Joaquin Valley, Cows Pass Cars as Polluters," Los Angeles Times, August 2, 2005.