By Jon H. Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, April 7 – Even while the battle over federal budget cuts continued Thursday, USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said that although funding will be a challenge, USDA remains committed to “voluntary, incentive-based conservation.”

Then Merrigan posed a series of questions to conservation stakeholders at the National Agricultural Landscapes Forum: “What approaches are needed to protect the soil and water resource base most effectively? Which of these approaches . . . will make the most efficient use of tax payer dollars?”

Complimenting the forum for assembling a distinguished group of experts, Merrigan assured the group that USDA is determined to support conservation by reviewing federal regulations and bureaucratic processes “to reduce burdens” on the producers who are on the front line for cleaning up the nation's air, soil and water. Then she posed more questions: “How can we balance voluntary incentives with regulations to achieve the results society wants? Which new tools are needed to ensure that agriculture and our natural resources remain productive in the face of climate change, water shortages, and other forces that we may not even perceive at this point?”

Dave White, chief of USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service added his own questions, clearly aware of budget pressures and the already started 2012 Farm Bill discussions: “Do we need four easement programs? Do we need all the various cost-share programs? Is there an opportunity to gain efficiencies through program consolidation?”

Forum participants were loaded with answers - and House and Senate agriculture committee staff members were listening. Wyoming rancher Patrick O'Toole, president of the Family Farm Alliance which represents irrigators in seventeen Western states, said USDA needs to be much more flexible with its conservation programs. He said it makes no sense for an area to return money to USDA for one program which is undersubscribed – because it isn't suitable for that area – while at the same time not having enough money for another program in the area which is oversubscribed.

Former California Secretary of Agriculture A.G. Kawamura, a third generation California fruit and vegetable grower and shipper, agreed. He said USDA programs should allow local areas the ability to shift dollars between programs to align with local needs.

Iowa producer Varel Bailey who has headed a long list of farm organizations including the National Corn Growers Association, said one option USDA should consider is initiating a biding process for oversubscribed practices such as terracing. He said this approach would allow a marketplace to develop, with the result that USDA could “get more conservation done with same number of dollars." Chief White pointed out that bidding is ruled out under current law – something which could change in the 2012 Farm Bill.

National Research Council (NRC) Scholar Jeffrey Jacobs explained that even if climate change is removed as an issue, agriculture faces immense challenges related to water. He illustrated his point with this quote from Dr. William Patzert of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab: “The continued growth in the population of the West will exacerbate the problem. The problem in the West is not climate change, it’s too many people using too much water . . . If nothing happens, we’re in trouble. If something [such as climate change] happens, it’s worse.”


Colorado River Basin water supply and water use, 10-year averages from 1923 to 2006. Source: Jeffrey Jacobs, National Research Council.

After noting that demand already exceeds supply for the Colorado River basin, Jacobs said that even water-rich areas like the Missouri River basin must start making tough choices. He cited a 2010 NRC report which concluded that “In many ways, the Missouri River is no different from other large U.S. river systems, as difficult choices are inevitable and priorities among competing uses must be established. Conflict along the river today generally revolves around trade- offs . . . Future trade-offs among Missouri River users will be inevitable . . . Effective resolution of trade-offs will require explicit acknowledgement of their existence . . . as well as limits of Missouri River goods and services.”

One point of agreement was that USDA should develop a more coordinated information system to compile data from all government agencies and make it easily and quickly available to producers – and that to support this improved information system, agricultural research funding needs to be increased, not cut. Calling for “an information response approach,” Varel Bailey said that “if we had a way to document how many pounds of nitrogen are going down the DesMoines and the Raccoon rivers and could report that back to each individual farmer, he would quickly convert that into dollars. That feedback response is probably more powerful than a regulatory or incentive-based approach.”

The forum was hosted by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, American Farmland Trust and Farm Foundation NFP. Sponsors included Altria Group, CropLife America, DuPont, the National Association of Conservation Districts and The Nature Conservancy.

For more information on the National Agricultural Landscapes Forum, click HERE.

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