While farmers in the Northeast complain about competing with California's economies of scale, more temperate climate, subsidized irrigation, and well-endowed infrastructure, all is not glittering in the Golden State's fields. The problem there and elsewhere: inadvertent pesticide residue, or chemicals that have drifted from one farm to another or from crop to crop.

``It's a new problem that really has not been brought to the public's attention yet,'' says Jim Pierce, staff scientist at Environmental Action, a public research and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

Each of more than 100 chemical pesticides is registered for use on specific crops, explains Mr. Pierce. Yet while there's an allowable residue of certain pesticides on certain crops, if a crop shows up with an unacceptable chemical, it has to be destroyed - no matter where the contamination originated.

``These pesticides are being carried through the air, through fog and smog,'' says Pierce, citing the case of one San Joaquin Valley farmer who had to plow under $120,000 of spinach. The cropped was contaminated by a banned chemical applied on a farm 30 miles away.

``In most cases, with inadvertent contamination, you can't find the source,'' says Pierce. ``But to collect [crop damage] insurance, you have to find the source.''

Paul O'Connell, a deputy administrator at the United States Department of Agriculture, says flyaway chemicals are not new. ``It's been a problem for years. I just think we've become more aware of it.''

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