DAVIS, Calif., Oct. 20, 2016 – California’s agricultural landscape received a healthy boost of conservation in fiscal year 2016. Over 1,900 farmers and ranchers teamed with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and partners to voluntarily invest time and money in protecting soil, water, air, plants and wildlife habitat. Conservation planning and funding was provided through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), part of the 2014 Farm Bill.

This year NRCS California invested over $88 million in EQIP projects—a figure that is nearly doubled when landowner investments are included. This funded 51 percent of the applications.

The Agency released these compiled numbers on Oct. 13, at its biannual State Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) meeting, where 35 representatives of conservation and agricultural agencies and organizations convened to review the information and provide feedback to the Agency for 2017.

“We are proud of the work we have done with so many farmers, ranchers and partners this year and we believe it shows that this model of voluntary conservation, using planning and incentives, works in California,” says Carlos Suarez, State Conservationist for NRCS.

Suarez said that while the Agency continued its ongoing work in 2016 such as increasing drought resiliency and reducing farm air emissions, a less predictable need came from the tens of millions of dead and dying trees, stressed by drought, insects and wildfire. Ultimately forest protection accounted for almost 15 percent of California’s 2016 EQIP budget. “This shows how we need to both have a strategic plan for our investments, but also maintain flexibility in the face of dynamic landscape conditions,” says Suarez.

One highlighted success came from Audubon California, Western United Dairymen, Dairy Cares and California Farm Bureau who all praised this year’s success protecting the imperiled tricolored blackbirds. “This is the first year we have saved every colony that was found in a farm field,” said Audubon’s Meghan Hertel. “It really speaks to the collaborative power of all of us working on this together,” she said. Other significant habitat work focused on sage grouse, Southwestern willow flycatcher, and rare amphibians that are fond of livestock ponds in Contra Costa and Alameda Counties.

Another 2016 success came in the San Joaquin Valley where NRCS –working with the organization Agriculture Improving Resources (AIR)—and other partners, exceeded emission-reduction targets established in the State Implementation Plan (SIP) for the Central Valley. “The SIP called for farmers in the Valley to reduce oxides of nitrogen emissions by 5 to 10 tons/day by 2017. As it turns out, farmers achieved a 12.49 tons/day reduction, more than required, a year ahead of the goal, and without a need for regulation,” said Suarez. The goal was met by helping farmers adopt seven conservation practices, most notably by recycling old high-polluting equipment with the latest and cleanest, running up to 90 percent cleaner.

Numerous other 2016 projects focused on work that partnered with Tribes, dairy producers, and farmers that may have been historically underserved. Over a dozen workshops were hosted to reach out to farmers in the Latino, Asian, Black, Veteran and LGBT communities, making information about EQIP and conservation planning more widely available.

Each EQIP participant, and over 200 others, worked with NRCS in 2016 to voluntarily create a conservation plan that identifies goals for improving natural resources on their property. The plan outlines possible structural and management solutions to address resource needs such as erosion, conserving and protecting water, enhancing air quality, improving soil and plant health on range and forestland, creating habitat and more.

In addition to EQIP, NRCS provides conservation technical assistance and administers Farm Bill programs that provide conservation easements, stewardship opportunities and a regional partnership program.