Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions

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Sometimes less is more. If we want broad support for effective and efficient conservation programs on working agricultural lands, we need fewer programs. Having a plethora of programs dilutes both the support for and efficiency of individual programs. 

This is the right time to make changes. The budget is tight. The 2008 Farm Bill is expiring. Everything is on the table. The stars have aligned, and we need to take advantage of this opportunity to fine tune our agricultural conservation programs to provide increased environmental benefits over the next five years. 

We began expanding conservation programs more than 25 years ago with the 1985 Farm Bill. But what we need today is not more programs with more acronyms and slightly different twists on accomplishing the basic goals of conservation—cleaner air, purer water, reduced erosion and expanded habitat for wildlife. We need greater efficiency and effectiveness—for those who administer the programs, those who apply for them and those who pay for them. 

For farmers, multiple programs with multiple applications mean multiple visits to the Natural Resources Conservation (NRCS) and Farm Service Agency offices, taking away valuable time in the fields. That really shouldn’t be necessary when the ranking criteria are often similar. Right now producers almost need a consultant to sort through the multitude of federal, state and local programs to determine which are right for them. We need to get USDA conservation experts out of their offices and back in the field helping farmers and ranchers.

The 1996 Farm Bill consolidated conservation programs, creating the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which replaced the Water Quality Incentives Program, the Great Plains Conservation Program and the Environmental Easement Program. That was the right way to go then, and it’s the right thing to do now.

I propose a simple, nimble, straightforward approach with a heavy dose of common sense. It’s cost-effective, and it can still include all the necessary requirements to ensure that taxpayers who share the cost of conservation practices are getting their money’s worth.

Today we have more than 20 agricultural programs, subprograms and initiatives—including many you’ve never heard of. What if we replaced all of them with one cost-share program, one easement program and one stewardship program? What if we only had one USDA agency delivering conservation to farmers and ranchers?

What if we rolled the Agricultural Management Assistance Program (AMA) and the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) into EQIP? Already the sign-up procedures, eligibility requirements and rules for participation are similar. Let’s establish one program to share the costs of on-farm structures that provide environmental benefits.

What about combining the Grassland Reserve Program, the Wetlands Reserve Program, the Emergency Watershed Program, the Conservation Reserve Program, the Debt for Nature program and the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program?   Let’s create one easement program focused on preserving and enhancing natural resources and one application to foster that goal.  Most importantly, give each state NRCS technical committee the authority to recommend priorities on grassland, wetland and open space preservation.

And what about using one stewardship program to encourage management practices such as no till, precision agriculture and high tech irrigation strategies? This approach might be particularly appealing to those who rent rather than own the land they farm. It would more clearly differentiate between EQIP and CSP and facilitate using a systems approach to conservation programs. Further, it would recognize that management is the vehicle that delivers conservation.

Let’s maximize conservation on the land by minimizing paperwork, streamlining programs, emphasizing cost-effective practices and reducing overhead. Congress is threatening to cut a billion dollars from conservation programs in FY 2012, but hasn’t considered common sense consolidation.

Let’s join forces to throw strong support behind fewer conservation programs for a better deal for farmers with a lower cost for taxpayers. Let’s make conservation work for working lands.

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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