By Vicky Boyd
The California Air Resources Board unanimously approved an aggressive proposal recently that would end open-air burning of nearly all agricultural material in eight San Joaquin Valley counties by Jan. 1, 2025, without hope for further extensions.
The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District now has until Aug. 31 to draft a detailed plan with annual ton-reduction targets to achieve that goal.
The action came after the valley air district in late 2020 recommended concurrence with its proposed burning phase-out timetable. ARB staff countered with an alternative plan that fast tracked the phase-out, causing concern among agricultural leaders.
“The law says (disposal alternatives) have to be economically feasible and the technology needs to be prevalent,” said Nisei Farmers League President Manuel Cunha Jr. “If the technology isn’t there and the economics aren’t there, then how can they force the industry to do anything when the state has done away with the biomass plants and didn’t replace them.”
He was referring to the 20 or so biomass plants that were operational when Senate Bill 705 was passed in 2003. At the time, they took about 500,000 tons of woody ag material annually to convert into power. Now all but a few have shut down, and the remainder must take at least 80% dead and dying forest trees and other forest-related materials.
Of the more than 30 speakers who dialed into the ARB meeting, several called for an immediate end to open-air ag burning.
Many air board members appeared to take a more measured approach but still were emphatic about no additional phase-out extensions.
Air board member Dean Florez, who authored the phase-out legislation while a state senator, said he would support a 30-month delay to bring an end to a practice he said has been going on for more than 160 years.
“I’m willing to trade 30 months for finality,” Florez said, adding that all affected stakeholders should lobby the governor for incentive funding.
ARB Executive Director Richard Corey emphasized that if the valley air district doesn’t complete a written plan that incorporates all of staff’s recommendations before the Aug. 31 deadline, the air board could pull its concurrence or approval. Should that happen, open-air burning would cease immediately.
Even if adequate incentive funding does not materialize during the next 30 months, the Jan. 1, 2025, deadline would still stand, he said.
“The date is not contingent on funding, Corey said. “I think funding is important, but the date is firm.”
At the same time, the air board also could move up the Jan. 1, 2025, deadline should significant incentive funds become available, he said.
Air board’s accelerated phase-out
The air board’s plan accelerates the burning phase-out, starting with large agricultural operations that are better able to absorb the costs of alternatives, such as grinding and soil incorporation, according to the ARB staff report. This also would allow more time for smaller ag operations to adjust. How large and small operators are defined is supposed to be included in the valley air district’s written plan.
Since it launched a pilot incentive program in late 2018 to help underwrite the cost of non-combustion disposal alternatives, the valley air district has given out $13.5 million. It has also turned away growers because demand exceeded funding.
So far, the grants have assisted with the disposal of 33,000 acres and 900,000 tons of agricultural biomass using non-combustion alternatives, according to valley air district figures. The average grant size was $25,000 and covered an average of 48 acres.
To achieve its current phase-out goals, the state air board says $15 million to $30 million annually will be needed from federal, state and local sources. Cuhna said the estimate is woefully low and is actually about double that.
In its December 2020 report, the valley air district had recommended to the air board that operations be allowed to continue burning small orchard removals of less than 15 acres. But air board staff recommended that beginning in 2022, larger operations that were removing less than 15 acres of orchards should be prohibited from burning the material.
The state would phase in burning prohibitions for small agricultural operations with a longer transition time than for larger operations.
San Joaquin Farm Bureau Second Vice President Jake Samuel, who grows cherries and walnuts with his family near Linden, said small projects are typically not attractive to commercial orchard removal and grinding operations because of fixed costs. When spread out over larger projects, say 100 acres, the fixed cost per acre is reduced.
“The big guys with the tub grinders are not going into 5- to 10-acre fields,” Samuel said. “It’s very costly to move all of that equipment. For a small guy, you can’t afford to pay for it, so it makes it tough.”
Jim Ferrari, who also grows walnuts and cherries in the Linden area, has removed blocks of 8 acres, 13 acres and 5 acres over the past few years. Each time, he burned the material because the cost of having a commercial grinder come in was uneconomical.
Ferrari’s ranches are typically laid out in 7-acre blocks based on sprinkler systems, and he’s on a program to remove an older block every year or so. But if the air board eliminated the burning option for small orchard removals, he said it would pose a hardship.
“It would be really expensive, and I’d be forced to pull more out to make it more economical,” Ferrari said. “I’d have to double up and spend all sorts of money and stick my nose out.”
The valley air district also had recommended that growers who were removing vineyards be allowed to burn the material until 2022. Then on a case-by-case basis, the district would prohibit burning – where alternatives were available – of more than 15 acres per location per year. Projects of less than 15 acres could still be burned.
The state countered with a proposal to ban burning of any sized acreage by all large vineyard operations, effective 2022.
As with orchards, the state proposed phased-in burn prohibitions for smaller vineyard operations to allow a longer transition time.
Vineyards pose a unique challenge for disposal because the vines frequently grow around trellising wire, especially with the cordon pruning system, Samuel said. As a result, hand crews must first cut and remove the bulk of the wire.
“The vineyard guys are going to get hurt the most,” he said. “They have really low contract prices, and they’re having to pull vineyards out. Now they have to spend double the money to segregate out the wire. I understand the pressure behind the rule to try to limit the amount of smoke and air particulates, but there are other things we need to be putting our money into.”
One alternative is to dispose of the vines in an air curtain burn boxes, which uses a secondary burn chamber to further reduce the size of smoke particles, Cunha said. The superheated boxes also can burn some wire, while the remainder is left in a pile that can be disposed of safely.
But the units cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and aren’t something that smaller-scale growers can afford, he said.
The phase-out is the result of Senate Bill 705, signed into law in 2003. Under the bill, open-air burning of ag materials was to be phased out between 2005 and 2010 unless there were no feasible alternatives at the time. The legislation also required the air board to revisit the subject every five years and modify the timeline if needed.
By 2011, the industry had reduced open ag burning by about 80%. But a series of droughts, which prompted growers of permanent crops to remove additional orchards and vineyards, as well as closure of biomass facilities limited disposal options.
As a result, approximately 600,000 tons of agricultural material are currently being burned in the valley annually.