Hazy skies throughout Imperial Valley typically signify one thing this time of year: Farmers are finishing their crops of wheat and burning off the stubble from their fields.
Those plumes of smoke that fill the air throughout Imperial County on certain days will take a reprieve soon as the wheat-burning season comes to an end. However the agriculture burning that some say has become much hated and misunderstood by residents will pick up again in winter as the necessary-but-not-preferred option continues.
Farmers in the Imperial Valley who participate in agricultural burning say that the burning does have a lot of benefits, but the consequences of burning aren’t taken lightly.
“I don’t know anyone who burns just for the sake of burning,” said farmer Larry Cox. “It was standard procedure 20 years ago. You grow wheat and burn the stubble.”
However, that philosophy has changed, he said. The number of agricultural burns has gone down substantially from that time and the procedures have improved.
What it does
Agricultural burning cuts down on soil diseases, kills weed seeds, controls vegetation and can increase yields, Cox said.
Agriculture burning is an effective way to get rid of crop residue so farmers can prepare the fields for the next crop, said Agricultural Commissioner Connie L. Valenzuela. It’s used for wheat and Bermuda grass.
There are alternatives. Farmers can disk more, digging into the ground and mixing the dirt, she said. However, those options are more expensive, and it reduces any profit they get from a crop.
However, turning the dirt won’t get rid of diseases in the ground. Those diseases could affect the next crop, and if there is a pesticide available to get rid of the diseases, it would be adding one more chemical to the growing process, she said.
“I hope they don’t lose that tool because they have a lot of other areas where their costs are increasing already,” she said.
The costs associated with growing crops is going up, and increasing the number of pesticides would require more regulations, an added cost, she said.
More than just avoiding pesticides and costs, there are some real positive reasons to do it, said farmer Tom Brundy. He does a minimal amount, as long as it’s necessary.
“You’re not going to do anything unless you reap some sort of benefit without causing harm,” he said. “The type of burning and waste we burn is very hot, very quick and it emits little to no harm.”
Unless you’re right in the middle of a burning field for a long period of time, it’s not going to have a big impact, he said. There are products people use at their own homes that do worse things to the body, like charcoal barbecue fires, he said.
Steps are taken to reduce any impact to the surrounding community. The amount of material burned is minimized, as first everything they can harvest is harvested, then the loose material is picked up, he said. What’s left is the stubble of the wheat, and that is what is burned, only during certain conditions that lend themselves to burning.
The ash that’s created during the burning also benefits the soil, Brundy said. In order to have life, you have to begin with life, and that life comes from the burned plants.
The dark-colored ashes also help with heating the soil as the ground absorbs the sun, he said. It stimulates growth, he added.
“Most of all, it’s thought through in advance, and there’s a reason for it,” he said. “For the public it’s been given such a bad name because I hate to say it, it’s such ignorance. They’re using more harmful chemicals in their house than what we can use on the fields.”
Regulations in place
Fires are a natural occurrence, maybe not specifically agricultural burns, but wildfires, said Air Pollution Control Officer Brad Poirez. Agriculture burns, though, can be better controlled, using more oxygen to reduce smoke and keeping it contained
If regulations, like what the county has, are used, it greatly reduces the impact to the residents here, he said.
“We have one of the most stringent ag. programs in the state of California,” he said. “It’s very detailed and very stringent, what we have now. So if it’s applied correctly I do support it.”
Some of those regulations include splitting the county into four quadrants and not burning more than 500 acres per quadrant — it typically doesn’t get near that amount — and requiring a special burn permit if a field is within a mile and a half of a city or school, meaning an inspector has to be on site for the burn.
A lot of the problems come from outside the area, he said. Fields in Mexicali are not regulated as they don’t have the infrastructure and controls that are in place on this side of the border.
Looking to the future and past
At the end of the day any changes to whether the county farmers will be able to burn comes not from the locals, said Jesus Ramirez, air pollution control division manager. It’s part of the state law that allows for this to happen.
“When people tell us, ‘Why are they allowed to burn this?’ under state regulations, agricultural burning is permitted,” he said. “They have the right to burn. The only thing we can do is regulate it. However, I don’t have the authority to prohibit the burning. If you want to do it, you have to change the law.”
The air pollution district has a whole section in its regulations on agricultural burning, and each day inspectors head to the office ready to analyze whether it’s OK to burn that day, he said. They look at the permits that have come in, the weather, how quickly the smoke can dissipate and more.
Historically the number of burns has gone down, though the number of permits has stayed the same, Poirez said. It all depends on market conditions, though.
Numbers have gone down in part because of emission reduction credits the air pollution control district offers, he said. More and more farmers are taking advantage of the credit for people not burning.
Local agriculturists say it’s a necessary, but some residents and social justice officials have issues with the burning.
While Luis Olmedo, executive director of Comite Civico del Valle, said he isn’t against agriculture, with the billions of dollars the industry makes, the public isn’t getting a fair trade.
“The cost to the public is much, much greater than the return,” he said. “There is no price for human life.”
It’s unfair that the costs that are being saved by the farmers are being passed on to the resident in terms of medical bills, he said. There are studies Comite Civico has done with the state Public Health Department that show that there are clear impacts of agricultural burning on residents.
“Everything that goes up comes down, and where it comes down there are children, adults, people who are asthmatic, some people who will lose their lives,” he said. “Some people would call it casualty of the food production. I like to call it plain disrespect.
“(Agricultural burning) it’s an outdated practice,” he added. “It’s what they call a feasible way to get rid of waste. It’s a privilege they’re giving to a certain sector, in this case agriculture, in the name of the economic interest. They don’t want to burden the industry.”
It would cost money for these farmers to manage their waste, he said. However, that’s not a price that should be passed on to the public, who don’t see the type of benefits like libraries and investments in the community.
Many people from the Imperial Valley see agricultural burning as part of the landscape, because they don’t know any better, he said. Through time, though, as the Valley becomes more diverse, more people will come from areas where this type of practice is not accessible, and that may lead to a push for change here locally.
Staff Writer Elizabeth Varin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 760-337-3441.
When they burn?
— Agriculture burning is only supposed to occur between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., with all burning stopped by sunset
— Wheat burning takes place from May to August, though most is done by mid-June
— Bermuda grass burning takes place from November to March