If you’d like to see changes in conservation practice standards, now’s your chance. Until April 25, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is accepting comments as part of its review of conservation practice standards mandated by the 2018 Farm Bill and designed to improve the standards and increase flexibility.

What this means is an opportunity not only to suggest specific tweaks to practices or recommend new and better technology than some practices currently include, but also to encourage NRCS to make the process for updating its standards more transparent, timely and predictable. Strategies must be repeatable and verifiable, but how do you prove that? NRCS should let everyone know.

This is reform that I’ve been advocating for a number of years. Most folks don’t really know how the system in NRCS works. How exactly does the agency make decisions to modify conservation practice standards or adopt new ones? 

NRCS needs to provide a clearer road map for farmers and ranchers, conservationists, NGO’s and the tinkerer or inventor with bold new ideas for solving environmental problems. New protocols, new technologies and new devices are out there. How can developers, conservationists and businesses best demonstrate that their processes or devices produce results that can be replicated and verified? Once they do, how can they present them to NRCS for approval as part of the appropriate NRCS practice(s)? The agency should clearly articulate the process for all interested parties. 

New technologies can improve outcomes, save money and benefit both farmers and taxpayers.  They can make funds go further and accomplish more. But they’ve got to be given the NRCS stamp of approval before they can go in the ground as part of an Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) or Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) project.

NRCS conservation practices are critical for EQIP and CSP contracts, but others use them as well, such as Rural Development, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state conservation agencies. Further, the practices actually serve as essential guides for the best strategies to achieve agricultural environmental objectives around the world. Everyone benefits when NRCS updates its standards to include cutting edge technology.

Not long ago, I wanted to install a new pipeline and watering system for the cattle on my South Dakota ranch. I identified a great frost-free system to use, but it wasn’t approved for EQIP in my state although it was in others. Because I had served as a Chief of NRCS I knew how to coach this company on how to apply for approval of their waterer for use by ranchers in South Dakota through the cost-share program. That company hadn’t been able to expand its offering to another state simply because it didn’t know who to contact in the state to get consideration. That’s not right. A person shouldn’t have to be the former Chief of NRCS to navigate the system.

Honestly, I’d like to see NRCS do more with this conservation practice review—such as holding workshops with technology providers or listening sessions for farmers, farm organizations, conservation and environment groups and others.

Nevertheless, I plan to send in my own recommendations for new and improved standards. Stay tuned. I plan to lay those out in the next opinion piece. Leave a comment below if you have ideas you would like me to consider.

To respond directly to NRCS on specific practices or the agency’s system for adopting/modifying conservation practice standards, submit your comments online at www.regulations.gov and search for docket ID NRCS-2019-0003. The notice requesting the comments appears in the March 11, 2019 issue of the Federal Register on page 8663 if you want to read it for yourself.

Written by Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions