Dome of the California State Capitol building. (Photo: Sundry Photography/Shutterstock)

Reprinted with permission from the California Farm Bureau Federation

By Caleb Hampton, Assitant Editor, Ag Alert

A number of new state laws are set to impact California farmers in the coming months after Gov. Gavin Newsom ended the legislative year Saturday by signing a flurry of bills.

“Each legislative session is a whirlwind, full of twists and turns, last-minute changes, high-impact decisions and careful negotiations, and this year was no different,” said California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson.

The Farm Bureau sponsored three bills signed by Newsom within the past couple of months. Those bills relate to regulations around using drones for aerial applications on farms, commercial property insurance options in fire-prone regions and the accidental take of endangered species on farms and ranches.

Assembly Bill 1016, introduced by Assembly Member Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, authorizes California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation to modernize the certification process for farmers to use drones to spray pesticides and beneficial biological treatments on farms.

The bill passed the state Assembly and Senate with unanimous bipartisan support and was signed by Newsom earlier this month.

Currently, farmers who wish to use drones to spray pesticides must navigate what they say are burdensome requirements that were created before drones existed.

To use drones for commercial aerial applications, farmers must obtain a license from the Federal Aviation Administration. Then, they need to get a special exemption to apply pesticides using drones weighing 55 pounds or more. Accomplishing these steps often takes upwards of six months.

Afterward, farmers need to get a journeyman pilot’s license. In California, DPR rules require applicants for that license to apprentice for a journeyman pilot for a year. With only a handful of journeyman drone pilots in the state, that usually means apprenticing for a fixed-wing or helicopter pilot to be allowed to fly a drone.

“That makes little sense,” said Al Stehly, a San Diego County farmer. Stehly initiated the push for legislation around agricultural drones after seeing the technology’s benefits and encountering regulatory hurdles. Farmers across the world have supported the use of drones to improve worker safety, lower costs, conserve water and increase crop yields.

“We think the technology, in 10 to 20 years, is going to be significant in this state,” said Chris Reardon, director of government affairs for the California Farm Bureau. “We’re excited about this bill.”

In September, Newsom signed Senate Bill 505, which was created to improve commercial property insurance options for people who have struggled to access coverage due to the impact of wildfires.

Over the past several years, many farmers have had their property insurance policies non-renewed due to the increasing prevalence of wildfires in California.

The cancellations have threatened farm businesses. Without insurance, business owners, similar to homeowners, are generally ineligible for the loans they need to purchase properties along with the structures and equipment their businesses require.

As a result, some farmers sought coverage under the California FAIR Plan, the state’s insurer of last resort, which is funded by a levy on insurance companies. The FAIR Plan gives farmers an option. But its policies, intended to be temporary, are expensive and do not provide comprehensive coverage.

To help policyholders leave the FAIR Plan, the program has a clearinghouse where insurance companies can browse its policies and make coverage offers. However, the clearinghouse lists only residential policies, not commercial ones, preventing farmers from bringing all their properties back under the same, competitive insurance policy.

SB 505, introduced by state Sen. Susan Rubio, D-Baldwin Park, will add commercial policies to the FAIR Plan clearinghouse so that they can re-enter the competitive market and get better insurance coverage.

Farmer advocates are hopeful the new law will complement regulatory changes announced last month by California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara intended to win back the business of several major insurance companies that stopped or limited their writing of new policies throughout the state earlier this year.

California will loosen some regulations in exchange for a commitment from insurance companies that they offer coverage to property owners in fire-prone areas and help depopulate the FAIR Plan.

AB 606, introduced by Assembly Member Devon Mathis, R-Visalia, and signed by Newsom last week, extends the sunset date for an agricultural exemption from laws regarding the accidental take of endangered species. The exemption was set to expire in January. It has been extended to Jan. 1, 2029.

“It basically means that if for some reason you accidentally run over an endangered species in the process of doing your job, you’re not going to receive a violation,” Reardon said. “It’s important that we have those protections.”

Johansson emphasized the California Farm Bureau’s success in working with lawmakers across the political spectrum and from different communities in California to shape the three bills and get them signed into law.

“It is important to note that while Assembly Member Mathis represents farm country, Sen. Rubio and Assembly Member Jones-Sawyer come from urban Southern California and still saw how helping agriculture helps their constituents who eat the bounty California farmers and ranchers produce,” he said.

In addition to these new laws, this past spring Newsom issued a series of executive orders temporarily exempting diversions of floodwater for recharge from state permitting requirements. Those executive orders were made permanent this July with the signing of a budget trailer bill.

“Farmers throughout the state took advantage of these opportunities to use their fields to replenish groundwater basins, and we understand that hundreds of thousands of acre-feet were successfully stored underground this year,” Johansson said. “There is no question that this year has been a resounding success for agriculture.”

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