News From the Farm | February 29, 2016

“If we want farmers to help us produce clean water and clean air and quality soil and recreational areas that all of us can enjoy, farmers can produce all those things, but we have to create both the market system and the public policies to be serious about those things with farmers and to provide them with the kinds of incentives and compensations that enable them to be able to produce those services.” This thought was expressed by Fred Kirschenmann of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University in 2004. But truth be told, developing the public policies that yield results has proved difficult, for example in the case of pollutants in surface and groundwater – things like pesticides and nitrates from fertilizers  – that are used by farmers, flow off of their fields in storms or irrigation runoff, and end up in drinking water. Why have decades of federal and state programs to address this problem never hit the mark?

The state and federal governments have tried various regulatory approaches – one current California version is called the Irrigated Lands Program, with 6 million acres of California farmland and 40,000 growers enrolled. Vast amounts of money (much of it in payments to the program by farmers) have been spent testing water all over the state, with mountains of data piling up over the years to show that chemicals used on agricultural fields are still finding their way into our water supply. 

All the water testing was meant to help regulators zero in on problem areas, but what next? Agricultural pollutants in a watershed are usually difficult to trace to any one particular farm. There’s also the fact that the use of water-soluble fertilizers and pesticides are part of a multimillion-dollar industry, not about to give an inch. And finally, there are agricultural lobbyists in denial that there actually IS a problem, kind of like the climate change deniers, no matter how big the mountain of data grows, they will always maintain that there is some other explanation.

The result has been a convoluted set of messages coming from various regulators, a mixture of attempts to educate, regulate, threaten and cajole.  This year was going to be the first that each and every one of the 40,000 enrolled farms was supposed to develop a nitrogen management plan, hopefully to help them make better decisions, but more likely a rote attempt to fill out the paperwork and be done with it.  Luckily this requirement was abandoned barely a week before the nitrogen management plans were due.  Perhaps it became clear that it was a lot of work with an unclear payoff.

For our very diverse farm, we would have had to estimate yields of all of the 80 or so products that we grow, supposedly so that we could then use scientific data to determine how much nitrogen fertilizer could safely be applied to each of the different crops without leaching nitrates into the groundwater.  But organic fertility approaches like the use of cover crops and compost are not as straightforward as the use of soluble nitrogen fertilizer poured into irrigation water. In fact, farmers with diverse farms and organic methods were clearly going to have a pretty hard time filling out the plans with any accuracy.

Now that a fortune in time and money has been spent, I am left wondering about the 265 California communities that have nitrates in their drinking water that exceed safe levels. Mostly they are small communities in the southern San Joaquin Valley with no alternative source of water. What kind of program would prevent additional communities from suffering the same plight?

My view is that incentives are the best complement to regulations. Research, technical assistance, and on-the-ground demonstrations of management practices that reduce pollution have proven effective in many agricultural settings. There are all kinds of reasons why California farmers aren’t applying more compost, planting more cover crops or growing plant cover to protect waterways.  But these are the practices that should be encouraged as a way to create soils that hold more water during droughts, fields that capture more carbon underground, and farms that don’t pour nitrous oxide (a powerful greenhouse gas) into the air.  Building a soil fertility

program based on organic sources of nutrients could go a long way towards reducing groundwater pollution. Developing regulatory programs that encourage these practices would be a great way to produce more lasting change in agriculture.

–Judith Redmond