By Vicky Boyd

Rather than mandating diesel engine upgrades to curb air pollution, the California Air Resources Board plans to dangle the proverbial carrot to see if financial incentives will spur voluntary improvements within the agricultural industry.

Under the proposed FARMER – or Funding Agricultural Replacement Measures for Emission Reductions – program, the board plans to offer $136 million in incentives to help farmers buy new off-road farm equipment with cleaner-burning diesel engines. 

The board is under a tight timeframe and must have all the funds – which were included in the state's 2017-18 budget – encumbered by June 30, 2019, and fully spent by June 30, 2021. Of that, $107 million is proposed for the San Joaquin Valley, said Erin Uchida, CARB program lead. Gov. Jerry Brown also has included an additional $100 million for the FARMER program in his proposed 2018-19 budget, which under state law must be approved by June 30, 2018.

Currently only heavy duty on-road diesel trucks that log more than 1,000 miles annually and diesel buses fall under the California Statewide Truck and Bus Rule. Under the regulation adopted in 2008, those vehicles are under a mandate to have the equivalent of 2010 model year or newer engines by Jan. 1, 2023.

Tractors and other off-road farm equipment aren't under any such mandate, but that could change, said Roger Isom, president and CEO of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association and the Western Agricultural Processors Association.

Several environmental groups have been pushing the air board to require all Tier 0 and 1 engines be upgraded by 2024. That amounts to about 1,700 new tractors per year, which would overwhelm equipment manufactures' production capacity, Isom said.

"They're going back to the drawing board, but there are mandates coming," he said. "We're trying to show them – look how many tractors we've replaced already, we don't need those mandates."

Taking the voluntary approach is a preferred way to spur change, said San Joaquin Farm Bureau Executive Director Bruce Blodgett.

"Any time you have incentives rather than mandates, it's certainly moving things in the right direction," he said. "It's giving farmers an opportunity to replace some of their old equipment and at the same time it's going to help in terms of air quality."

Ken Vogel, SJFB second vice president who grows cherries and walnuts near Linden, has never participated in the similar Carl Moyer engine-upgrade program. But he has been told one of his older tractors may qualify for upgrade incentives. So Vogel said he would be interested in looking into the FARMER program once it's finalized.

"I think it's always a very valuable idea to have alternatives ," he said. "The more tools you have and the more opportunities you have, I think the better off you are."

CARB representatives conducted seven workshops in February and solicited public input on the proposed FARMER program. They then will incorporate the comments into a final proposal that will be mulled by the full air board at its regular March 12-13 meeting in Riverside. Should the board sign off on the proposal, it will undergo a final 30-day public comment period before final adoption.

According to the proposed FARMER program, the board would underwrite up to 80 percent of the cost of new farm equipment powered by cleaner-burning diesel engines.

New to this program are proposed incentives to cover up to 75 percent of the cost of zero-emission utility terrain vehicles.

In addition, the board proposes continuing the pilot trade-up program, where owners of older Tier 0 and Tier 1 engines would agree to scrap them and trade up at little out-of-pocket cost to newer reconditioned Tier 2 or Tier 3 engines. The used equipment would come from owners who received financial incentive to purchase new Tier 4 or Tier 4i engines.

Participating equipment dealers would handle most of the required paperwork accompanying transactions.

Of the state's 35 air districts, 16 will be involved in the FARMER program and will be responsible for approving and funding projects on the local level. 

The amount of funding allocated to each participating district takes into account the number of what the state refers to as "off-road, diesel-fueled mobile agricultural equipment" – in use locally, Uchida said. Statewide, the ARB estimates there are 160,000 pieces, not counting stationary equipment such as pump engines and on-road vehicles such as heavy duty trucks.

The formula also considers the amount of nitrogen oxide and PM 2.5 emissions generated by the equipment. PM 2.5 are particulates 2.5 microns or smaller in diameter. The average human hair, by comparison, is 70 microns in diameter.

Under those criteria, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District is expected to receive $107 million because of the amount of mobile agricultural equipment in operation and the region's Environmental Protection Agency designation as a non-attainment area for NOx and PM 2.5 emissions.

Statewide, CARB estimates that off-road mobile farm equipment is responsible for 7.8 percent of NOx and 8.1 percent of PM 2.5 emissions. But in the San Joaquin Valley, ag equipment produces 21.7 percent of NOx and 27.8 percent of PM 2.5 emissions.

Providing cost-share to farmers who purchase pumps, tractors, harvesters and other equipment with newer cleaner-burning engines that meet EPA air pollution guidelines is nothing new for CARB. The agency has been doing so since 1998 when it implemented the Carl Moyer Program. That highly successful effort provides financial grants for cleaner-than-required engines and equipment.

CARB patterned much of its current FARMER program on the existing Moyer program, which targets on-road trucks, school and transit buses, off-road equipment, marine vessels, locomotives, agricultural equipment and lawn mowers.