The San Joaquin Valley’s vineyards and orchards have made the region into an agricultural powerhouse—one that, like any other industry, inevitably produces waste. While burning has historically been one of the most cost-effective ways to dispose of biomass like trimmings and dead trees and vines, recent regulatory actions have accelerated the timeline to completely phase out burning as an option.
Here’s what growers need to know and how to prepare.
The regulatory ramp-up
In February 2021, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) took action to essentially eliminate agricultural burning in the San Joaquin Valley by January 1, 2025. Burning has been limited in some cases and to some extent since 2005 under SB 705—but burning for all types and sizes of operations will be phased out over just the next few years.
San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District
The San Joaquin Valley now has the toughest restrictions on agricultural burning in the state. (These new rules do not apply elsewhere in California, such as the Sacramento Valley.) Currently, the air district can fine farmers up to $750 per acre for violating burning rules. The new plan could eventually lead to increased fines.
Analyzing the alternatives
In light of that, even growers not yet affected by restrictions on burning are advised to begin familiarizing themselves with the available alternatives, each of which has its own pros and cons.
Recent industry events have highlighted new technology like air curtain burners, horizontal grinders, mobile grinders, and mulchers. The biggest thing holding producers back from using these tools is the price tag: it costs substantially more to use wood chippers to process trees or vines small enough to be incorporated into the soil than it does to burn them. Hauling away trees to landfills or biomass power plants is expensive too.
In fact, Fresno County Farm Bureau CEO Ryan Jacobsen testified that the costs could add as much as $2,000 per acre to vineyard operations. CARB estimated a total cost of $15 million to $30 million each year to implement the burn ban across valley farming operations.
Looking ahead, several gasification or pyrolysis projects are in development in California’s Central Valley. This “high temperature non-combustion technology” could eventually consume 1.2 million tons of agricultural residues each year to produce low carbon biofuels or renewable power. More alternatives are under consideration by the California Clean Biomass Collaborative, which includes stakeholders from agriculture, academia, government agencies, the biomass industry, and environmental justice organizations.
Studies are in on whole orchard recycling
Whole orchard recycling (WOR) is another, increasingly popular solution. It involves on-site grinding or chipping of whole trees during orchard removal and incorporation of the chips or grindings into the topsoil before replanting. Research shows that WOR in almonds can increase crop yields, improve soil health, and increase carbon sequestration.
Almond Board of California
An increasing number of orchard removal companies in California are offering whole orchard recycling services. Machines like the IronWolf that can grind a tree into the soil within minutes have tipped the balance in favor of WOR. However, again, the cost can be a barrier.
“The biggest obstacle to whole orchard recycling is the $1,000 per acre cost of grinding and spreading the wood chips over the orchard floor afterwards," says Brent A. Holtz, Ph.D. County Director and Farm Advisor University of California Cooperative Extension in San Joaquin County. " But incentives have increased to help with this expense. We are hoping that someday growers will receive carbon credits for adding carbon to their soils."
More information about continued research into WOR, including a cost-benefit guide and list of orchard removal companies offering WOR services, is available at OrchardRecycling.UCDavis.edu.
A rundown of available incentives
The Alternatives to Agricultural Open Burning Grant program was originally launched in 2018 to provide financial incentives to farm operations to chip woody materials as an alternative to burning. In August 2021, the Valley Air District Governing Board accepted $178.2 million in state funding to expand the program: growers should visit valleyair.org/grants or call 559-230-5800 to apply.
Those practicing whole orchard recycling may also be eligible to receive incentive funding through the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Healthy Soils Program, which recently began accepting applications for 2022.
WOR researcher Holtz is enthusiastic about the program. “Since November 2018, when WOR was made eligible for incentives under the program, 539 growers received awards totaling $18.1 million, recycling 25,934 acres and diverting 727,980 tons of woody biomass from being burned."
Lastly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service offers Conservation Stewardship Program funds to growers who reduce particulate matter emissions by using orchard- or vineyard-generated woody materials as mulch. Applications are accepted year-round. Read more analysis from the Almond Board of California and contact your local NRCS field office for more information.
San Joaquin Valley growers can stay up to date on additional funding opportunities, current burn requirements, and other outreach by signing up for email updates directly from the air pollution control district.