No politician in California has ever managed to touch it. For nearly 60 years, thanks to rural tradition and state law, agriculture has been exempt from clean-air rules.
Even as the San Joaquin Valley has emerged as the smoggiest region in the nation, farmers continue to enjoy a special status, burning their uprooted trees and vines in big bonfires and plowing their fields into great clouds of dust.
But the days of wide-open farm pollution in the valley may be nearing an end. Last week, state Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter), one of agriculture's most loyal supporters here, walked into the state Capitol and did the heretical. He introduced a package of bills that, if passed, will stop agricultural burning in California and make cotton, fruit, vegetable and dairy farmers answer to the state and federal Clean Air acts for the first time.
Environmental groups call the legislation historic. Some farmers consider it a betrayal, while others plan a concerted fight to water down several of the 10 bills. Pollsters say Florez's timing could not be better, with surveys showing air quality as a top concern of valley voters.
"It's a gutsy move because it shows that Dean is willing to challenge agriculture on a sensitive issue," said Carol Whiteside of the Great Valley Center, a nonpartisan Modesto-based think tank. "But no issue moves politically until it's ripe, and the issue of air quality is ripe in the valley. Over the past few years, growth and air quality have become the No. 1 and No. 2 concerns of voters here. Like any politician worth his salt, Dean has a good antenna."
Veteran political observers say Florez, a maverick Democrat, is a savvy politician with an eye toward higher office. As an assemblyman last year, Florez proved he was willing to cause a stir. He pushed so hard in committee hearings that exposed a no-bid $95-million computer contract with Oracle Corp. that he embarrassed Gov. Gray Davis' administration. That earned him a reputation for calculated political risk and, many believe, got him fired from a committee chairmanship.
Now the Harvard-educated freshman senator is proposing to take on the San Joaquin Valley's No. 1 employer by imposing new regulations on agriculture. If air quality has emerged as an issue dear to a voter's heart here, this region also happens to be the Bible Belt of California, where conservative viewpoints, including pro-business arguments, resound.
One likely outcome of the legislation, analysts say, is a compromise that creates clean-air rules that farmers can stomach while acknowledging the health concerns of suburbanites, whose numbers keep growing. Already in talks with farmers, Florez has indicated there is some wiggle room.
V. John White, a Sierra Club lobbyist who has opposed Florez on many issues, said the senator could make a real difference if he holds firm under the pressure sure to come from big agriculture.
"What he is proposing here has never been done. The fact that he's taking on agricultural burning directly for the first time is big enough. But his approach is even more comprehensive. If all his bills were to pass, it would lead to clean air in the Central Valley."
But others see a risk in Florez digging in his heels and saddling farmers with regulations too onerous. "His district still depends on agriculture for its economic livelihood," said Tony Quinn, a Sacramento-based political analyst. "There's a political risk any time you take on the biggest employer."
As Florez worked to finish the legislation last month with coauthor Byron Sher, a state senator from Stanford and longtime environmental standard-bearer, he speculated on the political danger. Sure, lawmakers in Los Angeles and San Francisco would have no trouble backing him. But not one of his fellow legislators from the San Joaquin Valley would sign on as a co-sponsor.
Florez could hardly blame them. For the longest time, he said, he also wasn't willing to tackle the immense problem of smog and particulate pollution. But in recent months -- after reading newspaper stories about a region that has missed more than two dozen clean-air deadlines and listening to tales of children dying from respiratory failure -- Florez decided to take a stand.
So here was a 39-year-old grandson of farm workers who had never crossed farmers on a big vote holding court with the Sierra Club.
Here was the same politician who once browbeat an environmentalist for challenging the opening of a large dairy in Kings County now telling dairy farmers that their lagoons full of manure are the equivalent of industrial smokestacks. As such, he wants them to be regulated.
If Florez prevails, dairies and housing tracts will no longer be able to locate within a three-mile radius of each other.
"Something had to be done, and it couldn't be piecemeal or Mickey Mouse," said Florez, a former track and football star at Shafter High School who became student body president at UCLA. He worked as a fellow for former Democratic state Sen. Art Torres of Los Angeles and as an investment banker before winning an Assembly seat in 1998.
Some farmers see SB 700 and its companion legislation as something else: a good, old-fashioned stab in the back. One bill seeking to reduce farm dust would alter the way a tractor tills the land by utilizing different techniques or equipment. Few issues are more dear to a farmer's heart than his plow. What these changes might entail isn't made clear in the bill.
"A lot of what Dean is suggesting just isn't practical," said Pete Belluomini, a Kern County potato and citrus farmer. "We create dust for small periods of time but we prevent dust for longer periods" by planting crops such as alfalfa.
Belluomini said he met with Florez last week and came away encouraged. He believes there is plenty of room for negotiation. "It's very early in the process, and these bills are going to be restructured again and again. Some will come to pass, others will drop by the wayside."
Farm groups question why none of the bills focus on the building industry and its role in valley sprawl. Over the last decade, new freeways and suburbs to accommodate a growing population have increased the daily miles traveled from 63 million to 83 million. On-road vehicles account for 40% of the smog here.
To offset the impacts of growth and help farmers, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has talked about charging a $5,000 fee for every new house built in the valley's eight counties. That money would go into a fund to help farmers convert to cleaner-burning engines and fund alternatives to open-field burning. Florez has steered clear of any such impact fees.
"You would think agriculture is the only industry in the valley. You would think that there isn't a Highway 99 and an Interstate 5 with cars and trucks and suburbs all along the way," said Cynthia Cory, director of environmental affairs for the California Farm Bureau.
"Everyone has to share in the clean-air burden: people, developers and farmers. But these bills focus almost exclusively on agriculture. You lose a farm by making it too costly and what pops up in its place? Another strip mall with more cars belching fumes."
Over the last two decades, as cities up and down the state's farm belt have undergone extensive growth, dirty air has veiled the mountains in a year-round curtain of brown. The San Joaquin Valley hasn't seemed in any hurry to take corrective action.
Yet when this basin recently found itself ranked ahead of Los Angeles as the smoggiest region in the country over the last two years, with more days in violation of the 8-hour federal ozone standard, the complacency disappeared. Suddenly, no matter where you turned -- the preschool, the coffee shop, the Friday night football game -- people were talking about air pollution and their children's breathing problems.
Whether Republican or Democrat, politicians have done their best to steer clear of air pollution as a campaign or policy issue. In four years of state office, Florez never wrote a single news release on air quality. He said the reason was simple: It was an issue sure to anger the valley's Big Three: agriculture, oil and the building industries.
Florez said he began to open his eyes after reading a long story in The Times in December on the failure of local, state and federal regulators to clean the air. A week later, the Fresno Bee published a 24-page special section titled "Last Gasp." The letters-to-the-editor page began filling up with angry missives from longtime residents who had grown tired of business as usual.
"There's a growing recognition among people in the valley that they've been left behind in the state's fight against air pollution," said White. "People are angry because it's affecting not only their health, but economic development."
When children's asthma grows worse breathing dirty air, White explained, it can't help bring businesses to the region.
Farm groups had been hoping to beat back a recent set of legal challenges by EarthJustice, a San Francisco-based environmental group that wants the federal government to enforce the Clean Air Act here.
One of the lawsuits was settled last year after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed to seek an end to California's farm exemption. If the state fails to follow through by regulating agriculture, it risks losing billions of dollars in federal highway funds.
But the 10 bills put forward by Florez and Sher go far beyond simply removing the exemption.
In addition to banning agricultural burning and controlling dairy emissions by Jan. 1, 2005, the legislation would add a respiratory specialist and environmentalist to the regional air-quality board. Currently, the board regulating air pollution here is made up of county supervisors and city council members whom Florez believes are reluctant to challenge farmers, developers and oil companies.
Three of the bills call for tax-exempt bonds and other funding to help underwrite the costs of converting to cleaner farm operations. One bill seeks to end the practice of San Joaquin Valley biomass plants processing only construction debris from Southern California. Florez wants any local plant utilizing state funds to set aside at least 30% of its capacity for farm waste.
Farmers and residents will get a closer look at the proposals in hearings chaired by Florez over the next six months. But by offering the package after just one hearing in Sacramento, he has plunged into the fight.