The advance of agricultural technology is relentless. Finding new and improved ways to achieve optimum food and fiber production with a minimal environmental footprint is as much of an art as it is a science. But once we zero in on technological changes that go beyond our current best management practices, and are also backed by science, we need to share these new technologies widely and encourage their adoption. We need to reduce the time between development of new strategies and the wide-spread installation of newer, more effective conservation practices on the ground.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is committed to helping people help the land through science-based conservation programs. Toward that end, NRCS has sought to identify and verify new technologies, particularly through its Conservation Incentive Grants (CIG) under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). CIGs are a great idea, and I strongly support them. NRCS states that the goal of CIG is to “support the development and testing of promising new conservation technologies and approaches, with the goal of making them available for use as quickly as possible by conservation-minded farmers and ranchers, nationwide."
Toward that end, NRCS recently provided on its website final reports for CIG projects that have been completed so that everyone has access to these studies to find out what innovative conservation practices worked well. This is a great first step, and I’m delighted to see the agency finally take it.
At the same time, I want to encourage NRCS to go further. It’s wonderful to share the information about new conservation practices that make sense for producers. Let’s also get them into the practice standards so farmers who want to employ them will be eligible for technical assistance and cost-sharing to put them in place. That’s the next step.
But like those TV infomercials proclaim, there’s more. Don’t stop by simply adopting the practices CIGs have proven. Open up the process, so that anyone—an individual farmer, a state or local government, a nongovernmental organization, a university researcher, a private company, whoever—can petition NRCS to have a new conservation measure, technique or technology considered for acceptance for NRCS programs.
Just like the Environmental Protection Agency’s system for registration of new chemicals, NRCS needs to establish a formal process for petitioners to recommend new conservation practices, enhancements and tools. To put conservation on the land, we need to put new practices that take advantage of new technologies in the book. That will serve both America’s farmers and America’s taxpayers well.
For example, conservation tillage has evolved greatly in the last 20 years, and the Agency has generally kept up with the technology. However, precision application of inputs and the suite of fertilizer, seed and livestock management tools is advancing more quickly than the NRCS standards. The agency should be accelerating this change to support more efficient use of nutrients to produce more food, fiber and fuel, with less environmental risk.
New ideas can come from many different directions. Establishing a formal, open process for considering new conservation practices ensures that NRCS will be flexible and ready to advance technology through innovative conservation practices as soon as they are proven effective and useful. By embracing this concept, USDA can accelerate the development and adoption of conservation technologies that will increase productivity while reducing environmental risk.
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.