Wanted: Development Program for Conservation Leaders

By Bruce Knight

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Remember the Oldsmobile commercials that promoted new vehicles with the slogan, “Not your father's Oldsmobile”?  The car manufacturer wanted customers to buy into an updated product line suited for today's lifestyles.

Just like car manufacturers who emphasize that they have changed with the times, we need to look at new products and new strategies for conservation as well.  I believe we're no longer operating under the same rules for protecting the environment that our fathers and mothers did.  New times and new challenges demand new solutions and new leadership. 

To meet the changes and challenges we face, I think it's time to create a leadership development program for a new generation of conservation leaders.   We need to foster a new paradigm and a forward-thinking mindset to tackle the problems and the opportunities ahead.

Lets Talk Food

The old mindset of idling land to achieve conservation objectives is in direct conflict with the new reality:  the need to feed nine billion souls in a few short years.  We've got to increase production in responsible ways that safeguard the environment.  I've been calling this approach sustainable intensification.  Idling land must become a last resort, used only for highly fragile land and valuable wetlands. 

I've mentioned the need to invest in 21st Century tools and strategies, such as implementing precision agriculture, doublecropping, boosting soil health with cover crops and using improved seeds and fertilizer.  For sustainable intensification to work, we've also got to invest in people.  We need to get farmers and ranchers, agri-business, rural banks and environmentalists committed to conservation of the future, working together cooperatively and collaboratively and speaking the same language.

One of the challenges we face in conservation is that conservation duties in many agricultural organizations are handed off to the “new guy.”  And then to the next “new guy.”  Conservation needs to be a priority and a go-to job, not “other duties as assigned” for the greenest (pardon the pun!) member of the staff.  It's kind of like churches that hire one youth pastor after another because that position is seen as a starting point or stepping stone, when our kids need continuity and the commitment of someone who really wants to serve and mentor them.  Conservation deserves the same level of respect.

I think one way to change mindsets and strengthen our conservation efforts is to develop a conservation leadership program similar to what the Kellogg Foundation has done for general leadership in rural America.  We need a regional or national conservation leadership development program that will draw together folks from farm organizations, agri-businesses, conservation NGO's and others in rural communities.  Such a program could raise the profile of conservation, strengthen the next generation of leaders and begin to alter mindsets that have become as dated as your father's Oldsmobile.

It's disappointing how polarized our nation has become in recent years.  But farm people have always been able to work together.  Yet the difficulties with the farm bill have brought even that into question. 

I would love to see an organization rise to the challenge to create a leadership development program in conservation-one that can bring different interests to the table to forge common bonds and achieve mutual goals.  We in the farm community know the importance of respecting and valuing one another and hammering through tough issues to find solutions that address everyone's needs and concerns.  This is the time for new coalitions, new strategies and new leaders. 

Who is willing to step up and take this on?

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems.

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