By Danielle Venton | KUSP News
Between strict new regulations and demands from food buyers, farmers are caught in a tug between reducing pollution and food safety. Bringing both sides together will be difficult, but not impossible, say researchers.
Dirk Giannini is a vegetable grower in Salinas. On his farm is an old pond.
“This is part of the regulation, as far as trying to keep all this water on your ranch, if possible,” he says.
Solving an Old, Growing Problem
The regulation he’s talking about, the “Agricultural Order” was renewed with new conditions last fall. It’ll phase into full effect over the next few months and years. It’s part of the regional water board’s attempt to limit pollution.
The pollution that is targeted has already caused widespread trouble. It’s a likely culprit in some deaths of marine life. And it’s gotten into wells, causing health problems and forcing some people to buy bottled drinking water.
The biggest problems are from pesticides, sediment and excess nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorous. One of the best ways to keep pollution out of streams and rivers? It’s an old idea — keep as much water as possible on site, with a catch basin, like Giannini’s.
“This pond has been up on here by our ancestors and we use it for watering our roads during the spring and summer time,” he says.
Legacy of 2006 E. Coli Outbreak
While it’s not used to water produce, it can go on cover crops or for preparing fields before planting. This catch basin is staying put. But Giannini doesn’t expect the new runoff rules to result in many new basins along the Central Coast. That’s because food brokers and food buyers also place demands on farmers. They want fresh produce, free from contamination by animals or bacteria. The difficulty for farmers is that food safety demands don’t always jive with anti-pollution strategies.
“As far as more catch ponds going in, I think they’re combative to the food safety world,” Ginannini says. “It’s interesting to see the ag order and food safety go head to head with each other. And the farmers are just sitting here saying, ‘OK, we’ll follow the food safety,’ but it’s contradicting water quality, so we go back and forth. That’s frustrating too.”
Some food safety inspectors worry catch basins might shelter frogs or attract other wildlife. They’re afraid those animals could, potentially bring bacteria into the fields or even get caught in machines that clip bagged lettuce.
That’s the same reason why inspectors don’t like to see grassy, crop-free areas on a farm. These vegetated areas can filter water and prevent erosion. But, after the E.coli outbreak of 2006, some food buyers rejected crops from farmers if they had these areas.
Scott Horsfall of the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement says the organization encourages farmers to manage for both water quality and food safety. Cases of crop rejection can be down to the preferences of the individual buyer or inspector. This is frustrating researchers for like John Hunt, a toxicologist who studies the effects of pesticides in the region’s water.
“A lot of the systems that are effective in removing pesticides from run off involve vegetation. There has been a push recently by the large food brokers to remove all non-crop vegetation on farms,” Hunt says. “There’s a sense that that harbors perhaps rodents, perhaps amphibians that could get into the crops and cause food safety issues. I don’t think there’s real good data to support that. So that’s a big problem that a lot of people are working on right now is to resolve the pesticide treatment use of vegetation with the concerns of brokers for food safety.”
Cleaning Runoff in the Ditch
Michael Cahn, at the UC Cooperative Extension in Salinas, is one of those people. He’s interested in how water can be cleaned as it moves across a farm through wide, grass-filled ditches.
“And the idea is, can we treat this run off as it moves through either by slowing it down and holding it and let the biological processes break down the pesticide,” Cahn Says, “or by providing enough organic material where it will absorb the pesticide and hold it.”
In a preliminary trial, plantings of native red fescue, a common lawn grass, was shown to reduce pesticide load by 70 percent, compared with 14 percent in bare ditches. The grass doesn’t have a lot of seeds, so animals aren’t very attracted to it. He says, even though there’s little evidence non-crop vegetation is an actual food safety hazard, he understands why farmers are cautious. It’s just too risky. 10 acres of lettuce can be worth $100,000 dollars to a farmer.
“Would you take a chance of loosing $100,00 just to have some vegetation out there?” Cahn says. “That’s the type of business decision farmers have to make.”
But Cahn doesn’t believe the situation is hopeless. He’s seeking funding for follow up studies, and he believes that with more research, and a greater understanding among growers, regulators, food buyers and environmentalists, we can have cleaner water and safe food too.