Ag joining the fight for cleaner air

Madera county farmer Chester Andrew looks at a pile of ground trees on his farm.  The almond trees which had peaked, were dug up and made into wood chips instead of being burned.
Madera county farmer Chester Andrew looks at a pile of ground trees on his farm. The almond trees which had peaked, were dug up and made into wood chips instead of being burned. Fresno Bee Staff Photo

On his Madera County farm, Chester Andrew is far from air-quality politics. But he's in the middle of the fight.

Andrew just finished switching diesel engines on almost three dozen massive water pumps to clean-running electric motors. He hasn't burned almond prunings for years; he grinds them up.

And he uses stingy drip irrigation to save water and electric-ity, which, in turn, reduces air pollution from fossil-fuel power plants.

Andrew says clean air protects his family and his business.

"We live out here right in the middle of the farm," he said. "We want to be on the forefront of keeping the environment clean. We know a lot of farmers doing this."

Farmers all over the valley have been making up for lost time. Until 2003, the state ex-empted farming from many kinds of air regulation. But in the past five years, they have been responsible for about half of the air pollution improvements in the valley.

More rules are coming, mandating newer diesel engines for tractors and other equipment.

Farms continue to be a big source of bad air, accounting for almost half the dust pollution here. Dairies and other animal operations create more ozone-making hydrocarbons, or or- ganic gases, than cars.

Farm equipment is the third-highest source of nitrogen oxides, a key ingredient in ozone, after heavy-duty diesel trucks and off-road equipment, such as land movers and forklifts.

In 2003, state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, pushed through a series of laws that the air district says have helped to eliminate about 87 tons of pollution daily from the valley's air, half of the district's reductions during the past five years.

The farmers' efforts have helped the area meet the federal standard for tiny particles of dust, soot and other specks, called PM-10.

The biggest rule required farmers to cut almost 34 tons of particles or face possible fines. That's a hefty 11 percent of such particles emitted daily in the valley by all sources. They've learned to make fewer passes over their fields when they till, for example.

Farmers developed innovations to hold down dust because it attracts infestations of mites that can damage crops. One grower east of Fresno, Keith Nilmeier, uses peach pits from his orchards to pave his roads.

Andrew's land is near the San Joaquin River in Madera County. He uses about 1,500 tons of sand each year on his roads to hold down dust.

"We've been doing that for 10 years," he said. "We want the safest and best growing environment possible. Cleaner air helps us." In addition to the required steps, many farmers have voluntarily replaced dirty diesel pump engines, taking advantage of government grants that pay an average of 75 percent of the cost. Almost $90 million has been spent to replace more than 4,500 diesel engines on water pumps.

The farmers' share of the cost was about $21 million. Most was covered by federal and state grants through the air district.

Andrew said he is enthusiastic about the engine replacement. He has gone through two rounds of replacements, first switching to cleaner diesels, then to electricity. The latest round took two years and cost about $1 million, about half coming from the air district. Andrew said he spends less on electricity than he did on diesel.

The lower rates are important to Andrew because most of his irrigation water comes from underground so his water costs include the price of pumping.

"The power rates were a huge carrot that they dangled in front of us," Andrew said. "It's costing us about half of what we paid before to run our pumps."

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