Farm groups are blasting a controversial water quality regulation for levying a disproportionate burden on California’s smallest growers, who are often low-income and non-English speakers.

After years of research, hearings and litigation, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board approved the latest version of its agricultural order last year. Known as Ag Order 4.0, the regulation was the first in the nation to set hard limits on nitrogen fertilizer use to prevent more nitrates from leaching into the groundwater.

Board members acknowledged at the time that the monitoring, recordkeeping and reporting requirements would be a heavy lift for many of the region’s vegetable growers. Farm groups, fearing the economic fallout would hamper productivity, hired an economic consulting firm to examine the potential impacts. It found lettuce production in Monterey County alone would drop by $700 million annually, leading to a loss of more than 11,000 jobs.

Last month the board heard the first update on the implementation of the regulation since adopting it in April 2021. Environmental justice advocates argued the regulation has done little to protect drinking water for socially disadvantaged communities and called for the board to accelerate the deadlines for growers.

“From my perspective, the results in the Central Coast are very alarming,” said Brandon Bollinger, a manager at the Community Water Center. “The compliance time is already too slow.”

Bollinger stressed that households still deal with hazardous levels of nitrates and 1,2,3-TCP, a legacy pesticide lingering in the soil decades after use. He argued the nitrate pollution, which can be fatal to residents, will only get worse without a more urgent compliance timeline.

Brandon Bollinger Community Water CenterBrandon Bollinger, Community Water Center

Yet third-party consultants hired to help growers comply with the complex requirements in Ag Order 4.0 delivered a dire assessment to the board.

The vast majority of growers have small to extremely small operations and felt the regulatory burden was crushing their businesses, according to Sarah Lopez, executive director of Central Coast Water Quality Preservation, Inc. Early in the discussions for the order, Lopez estimated nearly 75% of the growers affected by the regulation operate 100 acres or less, with 90% of their revenue covering operational costs.

Testifying at the recent hearing, the longtime water quality expert said the order has unfairly taxed small producers.

“There's a very high level of frustration in the industry with the order,” said Lopez.

Her organization works with about 1,400 operations, covering more than 4,000 ranches and around 400,000 acres—accounting for 95% of the agriculture industry within the Central Coast region. A portion of the farmers they work with speak only Spanish or Chinese.

Lopez and her staff feel their hands have been tied, since they can’t help growers with costs disproportionate to their revenues. And they can’t assist growers who do not own computers, which are needed to navigate the fully electronic enrollment and reporting processes, and the same growers again struggle with IT issues at the next reporting deadline six months later.

“The same costs and the same technology requirements apply equally to a 1,000-acre operation with postgraduate-educated staff as to a two-acre farm for which the operator—who is also the tractor driver, harvester and marketer—doesn't have a high school diploma,” she said. “That's not appropriate, and it is in fact regressive.”

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Along with cost and technology, the order can be an administrative burden and resource drain for small growers, she added. Those who manage to stay above the threshold for being classified as disadvantaged are still heavily impacted.

“The small farming business model is really an owner-operator business model. There's no true profit in the sense of the word,” she said. “The owner's take-home pay is whatever is left at the end of the day, after they cover all their growing costs.”

Sympathizing with Lopez, board member Monica Hunter noted that in her engagement with agriculture on the order she found the larger operators to be more prepared. They hired specialized staff with advanced degrees in economics or other fields to seek out efficiencies, develop technologies and find ways to absorb the added costs.

Lopez recognized that larger operations pay a proportionately larger share of the compliance costs and some of the sophisticated technology they develop does trickle into the broader agricultural community and eventually to smaller farms.

“I don't think it happens enough to fully offset their burdens,” cautioned Lopez.

She emphasized that the order can be just as difficult for larger operations, owing to complexities around running multiple ranches, changing leases or updating intricate water management systems.

At the heart of grower frustrations is the recordkeeping. To routinely report progress back to the water board, growers must maintain continuous records, a task specific to each operation and not a one-size-fits-all solution, argued Lopez.

“The recordkeeping needs for this are as diverse as snowflakes,” she explained, noting that it is particularly complex for vegetable farms.

Acknowledging the impacts to small growers, Jean-Pierre Wolff, who served as chair when the board approved Ag Order 4.0, pointed out that 80% of the farms in California are small and most of those families take on outside jobs to balance their checkbooks. Yet Wolff blamed climate change for disrupting the region’s agricultural economy more than Ag Order 4.0, arguing the unprecedented drought has led to more land fallowing and has impacted production. He urged board staff to track any changes in cropping patterns that might result, suggesting that switching to new crops could have harmful impacts to water quality.

“I don't think any of us are under the impression that this is a simple order or that any operation is simple. It's all really challenging,” said Jane Gray, the current board chair. “Climate and [the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act] have a really big part in changing what is cultivated here on the Central Coast.”

Wolff pushed staff to consider ways to better engage with growers on Ag Order 4.0, such as leveraging social media platforms like Facebook or producing how-to videos on YouTube.

“I can assure you that most agriculture workers have an Apple [phone] or an Android,” he said. “We need to think beyond the traditional means.”

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