Funds funneled through the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) from the 2008 Farm Bill as grants to help farmers defray the costs of upgrading their diesel equipment have made a difference over the last two years, said Ed Burton, California's NRCS state conservationist.
The program splits the cost with farmers of replacing the oldest and most polluting combustion engines on farms with new engines that run 75 percent cleaner.
Equipment Replaced Via Popular Program
In 2009 and 2010, California farmers have replaced 814 tractors and farm equipment engines by buying new equipment or an engine which has, according to Burton, "reduced oxides of nitrogen emissions by 1349 tons which is roughly equivalent to removing 408,000 cars from California highways, enough cars to stretch from Washington state to Mexico".
"It is the single most popular thing we offer and the single most difficult to qualify for", said Dave Simpson, NRCS district manager at the Stockton Service Center. "Of the 814 approved applicants over the last two years, in San Joaquin County 38 qualified in 2009 and another 68 were approved in 2010".
San Joaquin County received $4.4 million in 2010 and $2.5 million in 2009 of the $43.4 million in funding given to California over those two years.
Burton also said $24 million has been committed to the project for 2011 and the program will continue through 2012 under current authorizations.
"California's farmers have responded enthusiastically to our efforts to improve air quality", Burton said. "We're looking forward to seeing what they can achieve in 2011."
"I traded out a big tractor and the program was great for me," said Jack Hamm, SJFB second vice president. "The NRCS was very easy to work with and the process went very smoothly and now I'm using a tractor with a higher tier engine that uses less fuel".
$43.4 Million Paid out over Two Years
Hamm applied for the 2009 program and was selected from about 2,500 applicants with a like amount applying for 2010 grants. Thus, out of total 5,000 applicants over two years, 814 were approved for grants at a total cost of $43.4 million.
Equipment Replacement Part of Larger Picture
The primary goal is to help farmers and ranchers achieve air quality levels mandated by the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. The program targets oxides of nitrogen emissions, Burton said the engine replacement program, along with conservation tillage, treating farm roads to reduce dust, and using machinery the reduces VOCs in orchards compromise the overall agenda to improve the air.
"The process went fine and my grant paid for half of my new tractor", said Richard Rodriguez, SJFB member, and a 2010 participant. "I had to junk out a large, 20-year-old tractor".
He said it required about three months to find the equipment that suited his needs which is about average for finding and buying a large tractor. "The search was maybe a little longer because dealers aren't flooring as much equipment now but the new tractor is tier three, it's running fine and I'm satisfied with the program, process and the end result".
Many Groups Support Equipment Replacement Effort
Farming, conservation, and environmental groups all got behind the effort to help put California agriculture on the leading edge of conducting business in a cleaner, "greener way that protects the air and complies with local and state regulations", enthused Burton.
The assortment of groups supporting the program included CFBF, CDFA, Nisei Farmers League, Western United Dairymen, the Environment Defense Fund, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District and the USDA's farm service agency.
Simpson said his office sent letters to everyone in the county who applied but weren't selected and advised them and others that if farmers can do a two-for-one, e.g., junking out tow tractors to get a grant to help purchase one, "this enhances their chances of being approved. Also, it's difficult to get funding for equipment of less than 80 horsepower. And the annual hours of use also factors into the process".
Funding Will Probably Continue
As for the chances of California receiving more than $24 million because the new mantra in Congress is to cut funding but, Simpson said, "The Environmental Quality Incentives Program which provides this money is very popular on both sides of the aisle". Thus, he expects funding will probably be included in the next farm bill which, if passed in 2011 will contain funding for 2012.
The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District contributed $3 million to 2009 to increase the cost share rate for some of the farmers in their district and the NRCS also has 420 contracts for other types of air quality conservation work at a cost of $6.4 million.
"I advise farmers to keep applying because the Air Quality Control Board is continuously evaluating the situation and the parameters may change", Simpson said. "For those who have applied for the first funding round in 2011 if they're approved the money should be available the end of March".
"Farmers who need new equipment should apply and I recommend that they do so," Hamm said. "The grant paid a big chunk of the cost of the new tractor which was very good in this economy".
Those interested in participating in the next round of applications can contact Dave Simpson at the county NRCS office at 3422 W. Hammer Lane, Suite a in Stockton: phone: (209) 472-7127.