Pesticide regulations scheduled to take effect Jan. 1 in Kern County are expected to have a substantial negative impact on local crop production.
Rules disclosed Friday by the county's top agricultural official will govern the use of chlorpyrifos, a potent toxin widely used on almonds, citrus, cotton and other commodities. The chemical is believed to damage infants' brains.
A ban on aerial application of the chemical will be the most significant permitting condition being instituted by Kern Agricultural Commissioner Glenn Fankhauser, whose action was based on state recommendations. The pesticide will no longer be permitted for use on most crops, and new buffer zones are also being put in place that, at a minimum, will require new coordination among growers.
Chlorpyrifos (pronounced klor-PEER-ih-foss) spraying has declined statewide in recent years, including in Kern, which in 2016 made greater use of the chemical than any other county in California. But how much of the pesticide is used in any given year is generally dictated by weather and field conditions.
Kern County farmers used 203,401 pounds of chlorpyrifos in 2016, according to the state Department of Pesticide Regulation. That was 38 percent less than in 2013, but 12 percent more than in 2012.
Environmentalists argue the chemical, produced by the Dow Chemical Co., should be taken off the market entirely after scientists for three California agencies concluded it is toxic and unsafe for use at any level. It has been found in trace levels in drinking water.
Last year, more than three dozen Kern County farmworkers were accidentally exposed when chlorpyrifos drifted from neighboring farms. Some of the workers became nauseous, vomited and were given medical treatment.
Fankhauser said the new permit conditions will mean less of the pesticide will be applied locally, which will lead to diminished harvests and reduced profitability for Kern growers.
"Ultimately that is the dilemma," he said.
Several officials with the Kern County Farm Bureau did not respond to requests for comment about the county's new chlorpyrifos permit restrictions.
Representatives of The Wonderful Co., a major grower of nuts and citrus and one of Kern's largest crop producers, also did not respond to a request for comment.
Because there has long been discussion about limiting use of the pesticide, Fankhauser said, industry should not be surprised by the new limitations. He expressed hope growers have worked on finding other chemicals that might be substituted.
BUFFER ZONE COMPLICATIONS
He said a big complication in the new rules will result from the requirement that growers spraying as much as 40 acres at a time will have to create a quarter-mile buffer that cannot be touched for 24 hours afterward. That means a neighboring farmer won't be able to do work such as spraying or even irrigation until a full day later.
"There's going to be a competition of who gets in there first and who's able to treat," he said.
The new rules will certainly create a hardship for almond growers, who in many cases have no viable pesticide alternative, said Gabriele Ludwig, the Almond Board of California's director of sustainability and environmental affairs.
The quarter-mile buffer zone is of particular concern for growers, she said.
"The reality of the matter is you basically would need to ensure that there's no activities going on within a quarter-mile around that site," she said.
"If you own the property it might be easier, but ... many times you don't necessarily own the property. And certainly if you own a home or any residence in between, that surely would (restrict) your ability to apply chlorpyrifos."