By: Alyson E. Ackerman
Farmers and ranchers in the San Joaquin Valley (Valley) must now implement alternatives to agricultural burning to comply with the California Air Resources Board (CARB) approved “near-complete phase-out” of agricultural burning by January 1, 2025. Agricultural burning is a vegetation management tool farmers and ranchers use to remove crop residue from harvested fields, control pests, prevent diseases, and eliminate vineyard and orchard pruning and removals. It is an effective and cost-efficient tool, especially for farmers and ranchers in California’s most agriculturally productive areas, such as the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys. However, its use creates fine particulate emissions impacting the air quality of nearby communities and inhibiting attainment of federal air quality standards.
Agricultural Burning in the San Joaquin Valley
Since 1992, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (SJVAPCD) has regulated agricultural burning in the Valley. In 2003, the California Legislature enacted laws intended to phase-out agricultural burning in the Valley between 2005 and 2010, by expanding SJVAPCD’s burn prohibitions for certain crop categories and materials. For various reasons, phase-out of agricultural burning by 2010 failed.
Prior to 2003, SJVAPCD estimates approximately one million tons of agricultural biomass (comprised of field crops, vines, orchard removals, and pruning) was burned in the Valley each year. According to agricultural burning trends in SJVAPCD, agricultural burning reduced 80 percent in 2011 to approximately 200,000 tons each year—the same year as drought onset. Since 2014, however, agricultural burning increased, and beginning in 2015 rose to approximately 600,000 tons each year. SJVAPCD attributes the increase to the closing of biomass facilities using agricultural biomass to create energy. Nevertheless, this is a significant reduction from pre-2003 agricultural burning trends.
SJVAPCD 2020 Report
Responding to these trends and its legal obligations, SJVAPCD adopted the 2020 Staff Report and Recommendations on Agricultural Burning (2020 Report). The 2020 Report proposes a comprehensive approach to nearly eliminate agricultural burning by January 1, 2025 through “phased-in reductions” of burning certain categories of crops and materials, such as vineyard and orchard removals. Collectively, vineyard and orchard removals accounted for 80 percent of the biomass burned in 2020.
The 2020 Report calls for the transition from agricultural burning to non-combustion alternatives, such as: (1) soil incorporation and land application of chipped or shredded biomass to produce wood mulch; (2) biomass plants; (3) advanced bioenergy through converting agricultural biomass to higher value products, such as synthetic gas and biochar; (4) composting; and (5) air curtain burners that control smoke and particulate matter from agricultural burning. SJVAPCD’s 2020 Report is available here. Unfortunately, not all of these alternatives are widely available in the Valley and/or feasible to its farmers and ranchers, who will bear the costs of each alternative. While the impacts to farms and ranches will vary based on site configuration, crop type, etc., SJVAPCD estimates the phase-out will have a more significant impact on smaller farms and ranches.
“The costs for alternatives can increase dramatically based on these site specifics, up to $2,500/acre for soil incorporation solely for the chipping/grinding and soil incorporation steps in the whole orchard recycling process, with a minimum $9,000 charge.” (2020 Report, p. 74.)
Therefore, the 2020 Report further calls for federal, state, and local assistance to support the transition to non-combustion alternatives, including funding incentive programs and developing legislative energy policy enhancements to ensure availability of existing and new bioenergy alternatives.
CARB’s Concurrence CARB staff recommended CARB’s concurrence to the phased-in reduction plans outlined in the 2020 Report, after modifying some of the phase-in effective dates. CARB staff further recommended SJVAPCD set a clear “ton target” to achieve the near-complete phase-out of agricultural burning in the Valley by January 1, 2025. CARB Staff’s recommendations are available here.
On February 25, 2021, at a public meeting to consider the 2020 Report and CARB staff’s recommendations, CARB granted its concurrence with both the 2020 Report and CARB staff’s recommendations. Notice of CARB’s public meeting is available here.
Impact to Farmers and Ranchers
Even with the directives for financial and political support for non-combustion agricultural burning alternatives, some agricultural sectors will face challenges with respect to the agricultural burning prohibition. Vineyard and orchard removals result in not only the uprooted vines and orchard tress, but also their support structures – trellises, metal braces, stakes, crossarms, and wires – resulting in a tangle of vines, tress, wood structures, and metal. In some instances, the vines and trees grew around these metal supports, making separation difficult. According to SJVAPCD, vineyard and orchard removals are not generally accepted at biomass or composting facilities because of the potential for metal in the wood material. Burning the vineyard and orchard removals allows for the scrap metal to be collected from the ashes and recycled. Without the ability to burn or readily utilize the non-combustion alternatives, vineyards and orchards face a unique challenge and increased costs. They can either attempt to separate the vines and branches from the metals to ready the wood material for processing through non-combustion alternatives, or pay a waste hauler to collect the vineyard and orchard removals for landfill disposal.
This article was originally prepared Alyson E. Ackerman (firstname.lastname@example.org) of Somach Simmons & Dunn, in Sacramento, CA, and is republished with permission.