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California to get more than $5 million from USDA for agricultural innovation

New federal funding will aim at lowering nitrate runoff from agriculture in the Central Valley
The USDA pledged $2 million Thursday toward helping growers in the Central Valley to lower the amount of nitrogen, from fertilizers, leaching into water. Here, an irrigation canal passes through fields near Fresno.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will steer more than $5 million to California agriculture and conservation projects as part of a $26.6-million national campaign to bring innovation to the sector.

The funds are to be matched by the recipients, largely public agencies, educational institutions and private conservation and agricultural groups, bringing the total investment to about $59 million, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Thursday.

Nearly a quarter of the funds will go to historically underserved communities such as veterans and new farmers, Vilsack said.

“I’m particularly interested in this year’s awards because they’re focusing on conservation financing, water quality, and helping beginning and socially disadvantaged producers,” Vilsack said.

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Six projects will be funded in California — three involving the financing of conservation on private land, including farms and forests, and three aimed at improving water quality in major agricultural production areas of the Central and Salinas valleys, according to USDA.

The largest single grant, $2 million, will combat nitrates leaching from fertilized agricultural soil into underground aquifers in the Tulare Lake Basin of California’s Central Valley, one of the most productive agricultural areas in the state. The program would encourage more widespread use of the agency’s soil and water assessment tools to conserve water and use less fertilizer, which could help bring nitrate readings in drinking water down to safer levels.

Another $1.3 million will go toward similar efforts to improve water quality and conservation by encouraging cooperative approaches among small growers in Monterey County, the heart of the state’s lettuce and berry industry.

“These projects will do two things,” Vilsack said. “It will result in more resources being invested in conservation, and two: it will as a result better inform producers about how to use limited resources more efficiently to get the same or better results.” 

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Other California grants include $833,250 to test the use of manure effluent from dairies for underground drip irrigation, and $498,000 to preserve about 2,000 acres of high-quality habitat for endangered species in the Central Valley.

California also would get a large share of more than $900,000 for forest and soil conservation programs among states in the West.

The new funding will add to the ongoing Conservation and Innovation Grants program, which has pumped $173 million into 414 projects since 2009, according to USDA. This year, the program includes 13 new awards aimed at attracting private investment in conservation nationwide.

geoffrey.mohan@latimes.com

Follow me: @LATgeoffmohan

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UPDATES:

12:20 a.m.: This article was updated to clarify the scale of the monetary commitment from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This article was originally published at 10:25 a.m.


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