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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.

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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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