Clean environment and ag partners, farmers told

Farmers can help ensure clean air and water while providing plenty to eat, according to a coalition working toward that goal.

The group, the Northern San Joaquin Valley Partnership for Agriculture and the Environment, highlighted such efforts at a meeting last week.

One speaker told of a grower-funded program that checks waterways for polluted runoff from farms. Another talked of the progress that has been made in applying pesticides safely.

"We want clean air, we want clean water, and we want a safe and abundant food supply," said Christopher Hartley, district conservationist for the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.

About 60 people gathered Friday at the Stanislaus County Agricultural Center to hear about the partnership, which formed in 2008.

Along with farming, it is looking into how to improve the food supply for low-income residents of Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced counties.

Many residents are unemployed or make less than $10,000 a year, and they often see fast food as the best way to sate their appetites, said Terri Spezzano, a nutrition adviser at the University of California Cooperative Extension.

"So we have this paradox," she said. "Not only do we have some of the highest rates of food insecurity, we have some of the highest rates of obesity."

Anne Schellman, also with the extension, promoted its new Salad in a Wheelbarrow program. Schools will receive books about food, along with seeds that children can plant in a soil-filled wheelbarrow, possibly donated by parent-teacher groups.

The "eat local" movement, which urges people to buy from nearby farms, is helpful, said Gabriele Ludwig, who oversees research at the Almond Board of California, based in Modesto.

Farms aren't picture books

But exports also are important, especially for almonds, Ludwig said. She added that advocates of eating locally have a "picture book" image of farms that often does not match the reality of valley agriculture.

"To me, it perpetuates a romanticism of what a farm should be like," she said. "That is not meeting the diversity of the needs out there."

Parry Klassen, chairman of the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition, told of its work since 2003 to monitor streams.

Farmers found to be polluting get advice about fixing the problem. This could be as simple as spraying orchards from the outside in to reduce drift or as complex as building a system that recirculates irrigation runoff.

"To a person, these guys say, 'I don't want to be polluting water. I want to do the right thing,' " Klassen said.

Gary Caseri, agricultural commissioner for Stanislaus County, said pesticide rules had a 96 percent compliance rate from 2006 to 2009. He said he likes to work with violators in a positive way rather than just penalizing them.

The group heard about the Stanislaus River Salmon Festival, which drew about 1,500 people in November. The event, sponsored by the East Stanislaus Resource Conservation District, taught people about the fish and how river water supports farming.

Efforts against air pollution should allow for flexibility and innovation, said Jan Ennenga, executive director of the Manufacturers Council of the Central Valley. Its members are mainly food processors.

"It's important to keep companies in business, it's important to keep agriculture productive, and it's important to clean the air," Ennenga said.

More information about the partnership is at 491-9320, ext. 113.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at or 578-2385.