Funding may help some growers transition away from burning

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By Vicky Boyd

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has received a $178.2 million state grant to help growers offset the added costs of removing and recycling old orchards and vineyards as open-field burning is phased out.

Manuel Cunha Jr., president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, has been advocating on behalf of agriculture as the Valley Air Board debated the ag burning phase out. He said the new funding definitely will help growers make the transition away from burning, particularly those with old vineyards.

“One of the biggest issues is with grapes,” Cunha said. “With tree fruit, almonds and citrus, we have been handling it much easier because of a variety of equipment. With grapes, you still have vines that grow into the wire. When that happens, you can’t just go out and grind it up.”

Ken Vogel, who grows walnuts and cherries near Linden, said he has considered removing a cherry orchard. He still hasn’t decided when that might occur, and ultimately it will hinge on the market, packinghouse input and finding an attractive replacement crop.

Nevertheless, he said any financial assistance the Valley Air Board can provide growers with orchard chipping will make it less painful.

“The legislation is just more and more binding on us, so whatever help we can get to work through this is helpful,” Vogel said.

SJFB First Vice President Andrew Watkins, who farms walnuts, forage and cattle with his brother near Linden, has been chipping tree prunings for several years. But he said the big hurdle is when growers have to remove entire orchards.

Co-generation biomass plants, which burn woody material to generate power, used to take the bulk of orchard waste. At its peak, biomass power generation in the state comprised 66 plants in the early 1990s, according to California Energy Commission figures. And the facilities were hungry for woody feed stock.

Only two plants remain in the San Joaquin Valley, and they only accept forestry waste, leaving growers with one less disposal options for removed orchards, Watkins said.

So far, he has not pulled any orchards since the burn phase-down began.

“It’s my understanding that it gets pretty expensive,” he said. In addition to Valley Air Board assistance, he said there also may be Natural Resource Conservation Service cost-share for soil incorporation.

Additional vine-removal help

Crystal Yunker, supervisor of grants and incentives for the valley ag burn program, said the Valley Air Board understands grower challenges and has increased funding for vineyard removal.

“They did recognize there’s larger expenses to get the vines ready for chipping,” she said.

Most grapes are grown on metal trellises. After the vines are initially pushed, workers must separate the stakes and cross arms from the plant material.

Depending on the type of training and pruning, grape vines can grow around the trellis wire and engulf the metal. Cordons need to be pruned from the vines, and the wire cut and manually pulled from the plant material before disposal.

If the wire isn’t removed, it can cause undue wear on grinders or pose hazards as bits of wire become airborne. Wire fragments on the ground also can injure workers or damage tires.

Orchard and vineyard disposal costs

Pushing a vineyard costs $400 to $500 per acre, Cunha said. Depending on the type of trellising, wire removal can run an additional $1,100 to $1,300 per acre or more.

Under the Valley Air Board’s payment schedule, growers who have their orchards chipped and either incorporated into the soil or removed for offsite beneficial uses can receive up to $600 per acre. Those who have the orchards chipped can receive up to $300 per acre.

Vineyard owners with cane-pruned vines can receive up to $800 per acre if they have the vines chipped and soil incorporated or removed for offsite beneficial use. If the vines are just chipped without incorporation, the Valley Air Board will pay up to $500 per acre.

Growers with cordon-pruned vineyards, where the vines tend to grow around the wire trellising, can receive up to $1,300 per acre for chipping with soil incorporation or chipping with offsite removal for a beneficial use. Chipping of cordon-pruned vineyards without soil incorporation can net up to $1,000 per acre.

Small-scale growers of permanent crops who farm less than 100 acres total can receive an additional $100 per-acre incentive.

As soon as growers know they will be removing an orchard or vineyard, Yunker recommended applying for cost-share assistance. The Air Board needs time to review applications and will eventually issue a voucher good for one year.

About half of the $178.2 million is set aside for existing companies that provide chipping and whole-orchard recycling services to expand their fleets. As with the grant portion designated for help growers, the equipment funding will be spread over three years.

The district began accepting applications Sept. 1, and Yunker said there’s already been a good response from custom chipping firms. The funding is not for companies to replace existing machinery but to add equipment.

“We want more equipment to be available to growers who are going to need to chip,” she said. “We need more equipment out there in the field to handle all of these removals that aren’t going to be able to be burned.”

New disposal technologies

In addition to tub grinding, a handful of new disposal technologies are available that could address some of the concerns with metal trellis wire. More than 80 people, including many state and federal regulators, attended a demonstration of the systems this summer at Woolf Farming in Madera.

For example, a horizontal grinder that handles hurricane and other storm waste could be used to pulverize vines, Cunha said. Then the material is run under a magnet to remove about 85% of the metal fragments. Nevertheless, the end product can’t be spread on the soil because of the small amount of metal bits remaining.

A burn box, which has been borrowed from the forestry industry, uses extreme heat to reduce wood and metal into ash. Any smoke is reburned, so it emits very little pollution.

A large burn box runs about $240,000 and requires at least 100 feet clearance from all flammable material. A medium-sized burn box runs about $180,000. The larger one requires a special crane to lift it off the trailer, while the medium-sized one requires two big loaders.

To work efficiently, the burn box requires a steady stream of feed stock and can’t be readily turned off and on in between loads, Cunha said.

The road to burning phase out

The ag burning phase out is the result of Senate Bill 705, authored by Sen. Dean Florez, D-Bakersfield. Signed into law in 2003, the legislation was designed to phase out open-field burning of agricultural waste in the San Joaquin Valley following a prescribed schedule.

Every five years, the legislation requires the Valley Air Board to review industry progress and technological hurdles. Should no economically feasible alternatives to open burning exist, the Valley Air Board could temporarily postpone the deadlines. For that reason, it has pushed back the deadline a number of times already.

The California Air Resources Board, which must approve Valley Air Board programs, voted earlier this year not to extend the deadlines further. ARB members cited several previous postponements and said growers have had plenty of time to adapt.

As the deadlines stand, all San Joaquin Valley permanent crop operations, regardless of size, will no longer be allowed to burn agricultural material in the open as of Jan. 1, 2025. The exceptions are for disease or pest concerns.