The results are in from the first year of a new air quality program for farmers: 2,523 applications were submitted for the program to clear Central Valley skies by offering incentives to retire old inefficient engines and adopt cultural practices to improve air quality.

The $22.6 million made available this year through USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in California was able to fund 586 applications. Preliminary calculations suggest that the effect these farmers will make will be an emissions reduction equivalent to removing 153,000 vehicles from California highways.

"This program has been phenomenally successful," says NRCS Acting State Conservationist Gayle Norman. "None of us knew for sure how many farmers would be willing to come forth and make this investment," Norman said, noting that producers still needed to come up with approximately half the funds needed to voluntarily swap out older engines for newer, more efficient ones that are nearly 75 percent cleaner.

About $18.9 million was available to help farmers replace combustion engines from older agricultural equipment-including pumps, tractors, and other on-farm machinery.

Other air quality practices such as conservation tillage, dust control on farm roads, precision pest control, and manure injection were funded by $3.7 million of California's general purpose cost-share conservation funds (Environmental Quality Incentives Program or EQIP).

Practices were funded that had been shown to reduce ozone precursors [oxides of Nitrogen (NOx) and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC)] and particulate matter [respirable (PM10) and fine (PM2.5)] emissions from agricultural sources.

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District provided $3 million to increase the cost share rate for some of the farmers in their district, making it more plausible for those who wanted to participate in the 2009 program to do so. The SJVAPCD has been a partner in working with businesses over the past 15 years in cost-sharing funds to reduce emissions from mobile sources.

"The success of the air quality initiative in California is largely due to an effective partnership," Norman said. "Conservation, farming 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."

Norman said the hard-working partnership includes the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the Environmental Defense Fund, California Farm Bureau Federation, Nisei Farmers League, Western United Dairymen, California Cotton Growers and Ginners, Resource Conservation Districts, California Citrus Mutual, California Grape and Tree Fruit League, California Dairy Campaign, Ventura County Agricultural Association, San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, and the USDA's Farm Service Agency.

Several partners joined with NRCS to host 15 workshops throughout the Central Valley to alert and educate producers about air quality and the opportunities available through the NRCS program.

Most of the California funding for the initiative came from the 2008 farm bill, which for the first time contained a special EQIP provision targeting air quality.

California originally received $10.9 million of the $33 million available nationally. Dave White, Chief of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, added $5 million in April during his first visit to California as head of the national conservation agency.

A final $3 million was added in August following a redistribution of funds to help meet California's need. California NRCS used $3.8 million in general purpose EQIP funds for air quality practices that supplemented the combustion engine replacements.

"We realize now that the desire and the demand for participation in incentive-based air quality improvements in California are clearly present in the agricultural sector," Norman said. "We will work with partners to do our best to continue to bring this program to California farmers in coming few years. NRCS will defer unfunded applications for consideration in 2010.