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Solutions sought for California’s no-burn mandate

San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District TNFP0603-SJVAPCD-no-burn.jpg
Chipping, an alternative to open-air burning.
Whole-orchard recycling is one of the methods being adopted.

In addition to everything else they must contend with, the growers of tree nuts in the San Joaquin Valley now face long-delayed compliance of an agricultural burning ban set to go into effect by Jan. 1, 2025.

Originally adopted by the California Legislature in 2003, the phase-out-ag-burning measure has had its implementation deadline extended several times at the behest of farmers indicating such a move would cripple their operations.

Air quality officials say it’s a struggle to protect public health from exposure to air pollution from the burning of agricultural material balanced by the economic impact needs of growers already working on slim margins.

And while they’re now willing to undertake compliance of that enforcement deadline, “(w)e can’t achieve the goal of a complete phase-out by that date without significant funding by the state,” said Roger Isom, president of the Western Agricultural Processors Association.  “And we won’t get there without supporting bioenergy projects that provide a long-term solution. Technology to replace biomass plants is not there.”

It’s an acknowledged fact that the burning of orchard prunings, vineyard cuttings, and rice stubble has all worked together to give the Valley some of the nation’s most unhealthy air.  While ag burning that used to be measured in a million tons a year has diminished, biomass facilities that turn that woody biomass into ash have been shutting down.

Price can be cost-prohibitive

For small growers, the price of chipping equipment or contract hiring to an existing firm can be cost-prohibitive. Estimations are that it would cost nearly $250 million over the next four years to pay for the equipment needed to phase out wood burning.

The new timeline for phase-out, approved by the California Air Resources Board, will impact farmer/growers throughout the pollution district made up of San Joaquin, Merced, Madera, Stanislaus, Kings, Fresno, and Tulare Counties.

Currently, when orchards and vineyards want to conduct a burn of pruned materials, a permit is required, and it should come as no surprise that there is a substantial backlog of requests to do those burns only on days with optimum weather conditions.

“Some of our guys have piles of chips in their orchards that have been waiting for four months because of no-burn days,” Isom said.

“We were given more time to come up with solutions and now it’s up to us to find a way to accomplish the mandate,” he said.

“None of the other technologies which we envisioned many years ago are available. They work, but nobody’s taken them up commercially. Nothing is out there to replace the biomass plants.  We’re starting to see interest, but nothing that will happen by 2025.

“We’ve asked the governor for $290 million to fund several things like purchasing more chipping equipment or upfront capitol for bioenergy plant implementation.  It’s an ambitious goal and I don’t know that we can get there — but we really don’t have a choice because of the deadline put on us. There’s going to be a lot happening over the next few months and today was just a small step to get it started.”

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