Air district insists open-field-ag-waste-burning resumption a ‘last-resort’ measure only

All of this talk about how California (an agricultural implements and transportation innovations leader) and of the actions to lower harmful emissions through such programs as the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, Renewable Portfolio Standard, Cap-and-Trade and others, as well as via direct legislative effort – all of which are exemplary in terms of reining in emissions of greenhouse and other gases, fine particulates and more, the model program of greenhouse-gas-emissions reduction, building and energy efficiency, renewable-energy resources – could be offset in the state’s San Joaquin Valley region – housing 10 percent of total state population and is consistently ranked one of this nation’s most air-polluted regions – if crops, vineyard waste and removal of entire orchards the open-agricultural-field burning of which is given the green light by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (hereafter referred to as the air district) to allow such activity to resume in earnest once again. If allowed to transpire, the Valley air-pollution situation could go from bad to worse.


It should be noted that open-field-ag-waste burning in the San Joaquin Valley over a 10-year span has been reduced some 80 percent, according to one news source.

Why this would happen at all, all has to do with recent biomass facilities closure, the most recent of which is set to occur by the end of the year. The Covanta Delano plant, the largest of its type in the Valley, ceased receiving material on Nov. 1, 2015, the same news source mentioned above noted.


The reason for Valley plant closings is all on account of energy produced via biomass incineration is no longer competitive with other forms of renewable energy generation like solar- and wind-power and this is prompting Valley growers to seek out and locate alternative means or methods of disposing of ag waste. The air district insists that it would only grant approval of increased open-field burning as a “last resort.”

Compounding the issue has been the drought, apparently. Lack of water or more accurately rain and runoff from mountain snow melt has translated into thousands upon thousands of Valley-based farm acres being taken out of production. Without needed water to feed thirsty crops, they wither and die. Dead stock is then removed and handled accordingly – resourcefully, hopefully, which means in environmentally friendly, non-air-damaging ways.

ZWED (which stands for Zero Waste Energy Development) in San Jose in Santa Clara County, has a unique approach: anaerobic digestion.

In “Firm’s food-waste-to-compost, energy ‘recipe’ praised” at, it was explained, “San Jose garbage, recycling and composting systems start with state-of-the-art facilities where all commercial waste is first sorted before anything is sent to the landfill. Organic and food waste is moved to the ZWED facility, where 16 anaerobic digesters use bacteria to break down the material in an oxygen-depleted environment to create a biogas rich in methane. The gas in turn fuels a combined heat and power plant that generates electricity for adjacent recycling operations,’ EPA reported.

“The advantages of anaerobic digestion are clear:

  • Limits the amount of waste going to local landfills
  • Provides a renewable source of energy generation
  • Lowers negative environmental impact on air, soil and water
  • Produces useable byproducts – in this case biogas and compost”

If more waste that would ordinarily end up in landfills can be diverted, directed, destined for anaerobic digestion, landfill space could be freed up for other types of source materials and those could include trees from orchards, vines and prunings from vineyards, etc. And given a long-enough period of time to partially decompose, this too could then be anaerobic digester fodder itself.

Other uses for agricultural waste include animal feed and bedding, soil amending, granular activated carbon (GAC) creating (from nutshells), among others.

Reported on in “Up In Smoke” in the May 2003 (Vol. 23, No. 5) issue of Nut Grower, stated in no uncertain terms: “The real advantage of producing GAC from nutshells is that it would be an environmentally friendly process. This would make manufacturing of nutshell-produced GAC in California a real possibility because it would be much easier for this type of operation to clear the state’s environmental requirements, more so than it would a GAC plant that used coal as its source. Since nutshells emit absolutely no sulfur gases and very little in the way of nitrogen oxides, GAC manufactured from ag byproducts is a relatively clean operation.”1

Finding means of disposing of decaying and/or dead agricultural waste without having to resort to open-field burning from both an environmental and health standpoint is definitely the way to go. That so-called “last resort” step mentioned by the air district, before that stage is ever reached at all, every other possible alternative to open-field-burning must, to repeat, must be exhausted. The Valley, the state and the people who populate California, deserve nothing less.



  1. Alan Kandel, “Up In Smoke,” Nut Grower magazine, a Western Agricultural Publishing Company publication, May 2003 (Vol. 23, No. 5) issue, p. 10.

Bottom image: Ashley Felton

– Alan Kandel