Valley air regulators spent over $540 million to help farmers buy cleaner tractors. Who benefits?
The Valley air district has distributed hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds to help farmers upgrade tractors to newer, cleaner burning machines. But despite hefty grants, the programs are inaccessible to many small farmers, and ag equipment still contributes to the Valley’s smog problem.
This story was produced with the support of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism Impact Fund.
In the last ten years, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District distributed over $540 million dollars in incentives to help Valley farmers buy cleaner tractors to reduce harmful emissions. Incentive funding is a key strategy in the district’s efforts to bring the region into compliance with federal health standards.
But even with that massive investment of public funds, state data show that agricultural equipment is still responsible for a significant amount of emissions. In 2020, tractors, harvesters and other off-road farm equipment accounted for 22%, or 36 tons per day, of nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions released from all mobile sources in the Valley. Diesel emissions contribute to the smog that causes a haze in Valley air and harms residents’ health.
The Valley air district doesn’t have the authority to regulate mobile equipment like tractors. While manufacturers are required to meet federal emissions standards when producing new diesel agricultural equipment, the vehicles operating in the fields are not currently regulated in California. So, voluntary incentive programs are the tools that state air regulators use to reduce emissions.
When KVPR reviewed the air district’s incentives programs for off-road mobile vehicles, we found that these grants have substantially reduced emissions.
However, the programs are not accessible to everyone; two of the nation’s largest agricultural operations received millions of dollars, while small farmers with slim profit margins say they can’t afford to participate. And without regulations or another targeted approach to sunset the dirtiest tractors, their emissions remain a health hazard to residents valleywide, and especially to farm workers laboring near old diesel engines.
Diesel engine exhaust is a carcinogen to humans, known to cause lung cancer. Diesel particulate matter and NOx emissions from farm equipment contribute to the Valley’s air quality issues and are associated with respiratory and cardiovascular illness. Newer diesel engines are significantly cleaner.
How incentives work
Shirley Rowe farms 20 acres of alfalfa near the Kings County city of Lemoore. The small farmer and vice president of African American Farmers of California has relied on a tractor manufactured in 1979 ever since she retired from teaching and returned to farming last year.
With a Valley air district grant, she purchased a newer tractor of roughly the same horsepower that will emit far less exhaust. The grant covered most of the cost of the vehicle. She was required to contribute 20%.
“I'm excited about it. You know, like when you’re a little kid and you're going to get a new toy,” she said. “The program is excellent, very good, I can’t say enough.”
The air district helped replace more than 11,000 farm vehicles in the Valley in the last decade, reducing emissions by an estimated 60,000 tons of pollutants, according to our analysis of data provided by the district. Only grants awarded in eight counties of the San Joaquin Valley were analyzed, the vast majority of which are off-road agricultural vehicles.
Grants come through the Carl Moyer and FARMER programs, which are managed by the California Air Resources Board and funded by cap and trade dollars, allocations from the state budget, and fees paid to the Department of Motor Vehicles for smog abatement and vehicle registration.
Funding also comes to the air district in the form of fees and fines paid by development projects that plan to emit air pollution over a certain threshold. Amazon, for example, paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to the air district to make up for excess NOx emissions it expected to emit from its fulfillment center in south Fresno.
Most of those public funds were spent on equipment that still runs on diesel fuel, data show. And, although the state has been transitioning to cleaner agricultural equipment, fuel use in 2020 was 19% higher than a decade earlier, which offset some of those emissions savings, according to a CARB analysis.
“As electric equipment becomes more broadly available we’re certainly moving in that direction,” said Todd DeYoung, director of grants and incentives for the air district. “But, replacing all diesel equipment with the new latest tier for clean diesel equipment can get a 90 to 95% reduction in emissions by replacing these old uncontrolled engines with these new cleanest available diesel engines.”
Incentives aren’t accessible to everyone
John Werner said he knows his tractor is dirty, but he can’t justify spending any money to replace what works fine. Filling out the application paperwork, possible wait times of months to years for the vehicle and the follow-up reports required sometimes for years by the air district are barriers that keep him and many other small farmers from participating in the incentives programs.
His 2009 Kubota M7040 tractor is a “one-stop shop” used for shredding, discing, raking, seeding and mowing, and he expects it to last him another 15 or 20 years.
“It puffs carbon,” he acknowledges. “There’s no mufflers…there’s no catalytic converters on this at all. It’s a four-cylinder engine and that’s it. Straight exhaust, really.”
He farms 60 acres near Seville in Tulare County, growing olives, hay, peaches, figs and soon pistachios. The operation works on slim margins and it’s not enough to support his family of five, so he also works as the executive director of the Sequoias Adult Education Consortium.
Maybe he would trade in his tractor, he said, if he could get a cleaner one that was just as reliable at no cost. But that’s not the deal available.
Air quality is important to him; as a kid he grew up with bad allergies and what he called “borderline asthma attacks.”
“Right now you can see the haze of smog all across our Valley. There’s days we can’t really see the mountains that are just a few miles away. And there’s a direct correlation, we know this, between heart disease and air quality,” Werner said. “It matters and it’s critical. But…how do I worry about that and then pay all the bills at the same time?”
Responding to an informal survey distributed by KVPR, many growers said they support incentive programs. Others called attention to what they feel is short staffing at the air district, the reduced reliability of newer machines that run on higher-tech computer systems, and their concerns that these programs reduce tractor inventory and inflate prices in the used market.
While many small farmers like Werner say they can’t afford to participate in the incentives programs, millions of dollars in public funds have been used to subsidize the expense of tractor upgrades for some of the wealthiest agricultural operations in the country.
Wonderful Orchards and Wonderful Pistachios & Almonds, owned by one of America’s biggest farming families, Stewart and Lynda Resnick, received 52 grants totaling $2.4 million to replace almond sweepers, shakers and other equipment between 2019 and 2021, public records show.
Another farming giant got even more. Since 2013, J.G. Boswell Company, a colossus in the cotton industry that also produces processing tomatoes and other commodities, received 102 grants totalling $14 million in district incentive funds to replace tractors, cotton pickers, harvesters and other equipment.
A member of the Valley air district’s board, which sets the policies and rules around incentives, has also benefited from the programs. Buddy Mendes, who served as chair of the board in 2017-2018, is a 50% partner in the agricultural operation called Budles Farm, according to his 2018 statement of economic interests filed with the Fair Political Practices Commission. That company received $364,000 in 2017 from the ag vehicle replacement program for a cotton picker, records show.
“The big operations who can hire the lobbyists, hire lawyers, and track these processes are the ones that get all the funding, because it’s first come, first served,” said Mark Rose of the National Parks Conservation Association. He advocates for clean air policies, including increased regulations for agricultural operations.
“We don’t want to put small farmers out of business,” Rose said. “We want to see the small farmers thrive. We want to see them get the hundreds of millions of dollars that the state is giving to the Valley air district. We want to see that money disbursed equitably.”
It’s unclear what portion of incentive funds over the last decade have gone to large or small operations. Data about farm size was not provided in response to a request because, the Valley air district said, it is not required to track that information.
Jaime Holt, a spokesperson for the air district, said the agency's governing board has heard those concerns, and the district has recently lowered some barriers to the programs.
“Even the modest amount of out of pocket expenses are sometimes too much to allow people to participate,” Holt said. “We’ve implemented several measures and changes to our programs over the years to try to reduce or eliminate the out of pocket expense to the extent that we can.”
Most recently, the air district launched a program that allows operations under 100 acres to purchase used equipment instead of more costly new equipment. In addition, the agency recently increased the incentive amount for the smallest operations by creating a sliding scale that offers smaller farms the lowest cost share; the air district now covers up to 80% of costs for farmers with less than 100 acres, in comparison to up to 60% for the largest growers.
Even with that increased funding, Werner, who has refinanced his home to plant 24 acres of pistachio trees, said “I couldn’t do it right now. There’s just no way.”
“In my mind,” he said, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Well, from my perspective it’s not broke. From an air quality board perspective, they’re saying ‘no, what you’re doing is broke,’ so I think that’s the hard thing for small farmers.”
Catherine Garoupa White, director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, said incentives are usually part of a carrot and a stick approach, partnered with robust regulations. That’s not the case here.
“Taxpayers need to help pay Wonderful Company to clean up their equipment? I personally find that highly offensive. They should be paying the cost of cleaning up their equipment,” Garoupa White said. She acknowledges these grants did serve to reduce emissions, but, “Was that the best way possible, in the most polluted air basin in the United States, that also happens to be majority low-income households? I don’t think so.”
California could soon regulate ag equipment
The California Air Resources Board (CARB) will consider regulating ag equipment if an emissions reductions goal isn’t met within the next couple of years.
The goal is to reduce emissions from diesel-burning agricultural equipment by 11 tons per day of NOx by 2024 compared to 2013 levels, according to a CARB spokesperson. It’s part of air regulators’ 2018 plan to meet federal air quality standards, which calls for a cash infusion of $1.4 billion for the accelerated turnover of agricultural equipment.
Officials at CARB considered regulating off-road agricultural equipment in the past, but decided not to because staff determined the expense of coming into compliance would be too great for farmers.
A 2018 study by CARB and Cal Poly found that larger farms have more ability to absorb additional regulatory costs compared to small farms. But it also found large farms tend to account for fewer emissions per acre compared to small farms.
“In 2013 we did explore the potential for a tractor rule” to regulate emissions from agricultural equipment, said Erin Uchida, an air pollution specialist at CARB. She said conversations about regulation will continue in 2024 or 2025, but “our hope is that we'll get the necessary emission reductions through incentives.”
The Valley has a ways to go.
In December 2019, CARB calculated the Valley could achieve only 5.9 tons per day of NOx reductions–just over half the stated goal–in 2024. Officials at CARB haven’t yet updated estimates to reflect current funding levels.
If CARB did push for regulations in the future, district staff were noncommittal as to whether the Valley air district would support that approach, implying that more state funding for voluntary incentives is the preferred option.
The voluntary incentive structure has been “wildly successful,” said Tom Jordan, senior policy advisor at the air district. “And you know, right now we have a large state budget surplus.”
“There’s a lot of tools in the toolbox. Regulation is one of them and we’d have to see what things look like at that point to see the best way forward,” he said. “But we found the ag industry has been willing to step up in a voluntary manner with some additional resources from the state or local level to help them get there.”
More than 18,000 of the dirtiest tier tractors remain in use in Valley fields as of last year, according to CARB estimates.
A previous version of this story contained errors about the amount of money spent on grants. The grant totals awarded to Budles Farm and the J.G. Boswell Company have been corrected, as well as the total amount of grant money spent by the Valley air district.
Want the data? Click here for a spreadsheet of all grants issued by the Valley air district for mobile sources since 2011. The analysis for this story includes only grants issued within Valley counties for off-road agricultural vehicles.
Monica Vaughan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MonicaLVaughan. Kerry Klein can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @EineKleineKerry.