Carlos Suarez began his tenure as State Conservationist for USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in California in January of 2013, but the Puerto Rico native still has the same level of enthusiasm for soil and water conservation as when he started his career in the early 1990’s as an unpaid volunteer and later as a soil conservationist in West Virginia. Since that time, he has held various positions across the agency, including serving as the State Conservationist in Florida, Deputy State Conservationist in Nebraska and California, Assistant State Conservationist for Field Operations in Wisconsin, Watershed Advisor for the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Agency for International Development in Nicaragua, Farm Bill Program Manager in Indiana, Soil Conservationist and District Conservationist in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Suarez has also been a member of numerous national-level teams and has served on multiple occasions as an international environmental consultant to the U.S. Agency for International Development and The Millennium Challenge Corporation. In 2009, Suarez served as Acting Deputy Country Director for the U.S. Agency for International Development at the U. S. Embassy in Mexico.
Now, he leads over 400 permanent and contract employees charged with implementing a new strategic plan and deploying NRCS programs from the state headquarters in Davis. Agri-Pulse interviewed Suarez on Tuesday for a comprehensive overview of conservation efforts in the state. Some questions and answers have been edited for brevity.
1. Q. You’ve worked in crisis situations in the past, including recovery efforts after hurricanes struck Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. How is your staff working during the pandemic?
A.I had experience in emergency situations in the past, but it doesn’t compare to what we are doing here. We had to do adaptive management. We went to maximum telework and our NRCS family was able to adapt and deliver conservation. We did have staff go into offices but no more than one person at a time. We used rotational schedules and followed guidelines for all of the appropriate safety precautions. And although we were behind doors, we were open for service, through appointments and so forth.
2. Q. As you look at the issues you're trying to confront in California, being such a large state with so many different commodities, what are the top challenges you're dealing with?
A. Water Conservation. As you are aware, California went through a drought for almost 5 years and making sure that we had enough water to continue producing crops in a sustainable and an environmentally friendly manner was paramount, and it still is. A few years ago, I recall an interview that I had with farmers in Texas who were dealing with drought. I asked them for their best advice for California. One gentleman said, “Forget about this drought, prepare for the next one." And that changed my view on how to put resources out there - not only addressing the problem, but proactively working to minimize the impact of that challenge. So, it is creating resiliency. We are going to have those fears of water shortages. We have to be prepared.
Another challenge would be improving air quality, especially in the San Joaquin Valley, but it applies throughout the state. We, along with our partners, the air quality districts, the resource Conservation Districts, NGOS and the Environmental Protection Agency, have been working on a voluntary approach to make sure that we are obtaining the gains and improving air quality. In addition, replenishing groundwater, which kind of goes hand in hand with water conservation and soil health.
I'm very honored to partner with Secretary Karen Ross for the past eight years. She has been a champion on soil health at the state and also national level, along with California Farm Bureau, the California Extension Service and the California Resource Conservation Districts. We work together to make sure that soil health is paramount and using the benefits of soil health to address many of these challenges.
3. Q. Do you have adequate funding to address these challenges?
A. The funding that we’ve received under the 2014 and now the 2018 farm bills have definitely allowed NRCS in California to address many, if not all of these issues – in different shapes and fashions. We are second in the nation when it comes to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, following Texas. A lot of the money we received through EQIP goes to address air quality, along with soil health, water conservation – including groundwater- and water quality. We also have the Regional Conservation Partnership Program to address watershed concerns both within our state and multi-state. We leverage funding from our partners and we have many, including the California Rice Commission, The Nature Conservancy, Point Blue Environmental Science and many others.
I mentioned the Conservation Stewardship Program is becoming a very popular program. This is one that I'm very proud of. I'm going to make CSP one of the strongest programs not only in California but in the nation. We have been able to quadruple our funding for CSP in the last few years. And that's because of the efforts of our field offices, our program staff, and our partners - especially, the Almond Board, the California livestock and ranchers’ associations and the California Farm Bureau who have been strong partners in promoting our programs and getting their constituents to participate. So, funding wise, it's been solid. But it’s definitely a combination of the federal investments and our partners who help us get conservation on the ground.
4. Q. What’s the status of the EQIP application process for this year and how does interest vary by regions of the state?
We have different funding pools for requests and batching periods. We have completed our first period and are close to completing our second one and going into a third. Compared to other states, we are number three in the nation and when it comes to obligations of EQIP funds this year. Even with the pandemic, our field offices have been working with farmers, ranchers and forest owners to make that happen. We're hoping that we're going to spend all the money that we receive, but perhaps receive additional funds to supplement our needs.
Interest in EQIP is fairly widespread across the state. Air quality is certainly one that is mostly in the San Joaquin Valley. In the Sacramento Valley and in the Sierras, we had a lot of funding that has been dedicated for forest improvement and forest health improvement, wildfire, resiliency, and so forth. We also use EQIP funding across the state to improve irrigation and address soil health.
5. Q. Any other NRCS programs that are of strong interest to the agricultural community?
A. The Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). Earlier this year, NRCS announced that the American Farmland Trust (AFT) would receive $10 million for the San Joaquin Valley Land and Water Conservation Collaboration to address water resource issues using cutting-edge planning tools that ensure the most efficient use of resources and result in the strategic protection and stewardship of agricultural land. The California Rice Commission received nearly $5.5 million to engage rice producers in implementing a mix of proven and innovative wildlife practices on their farms to substantially increase the foraging, roosting, and nesting value of ricelands for wetland-dependent bird species in the Central Valley. Previous projects included the McMullin On Farm Flood Capture expansion and the Sierra Nevada Tree Mortality program.
We have other partners that are looking at different ways to partner with NRCS to meet requirements under the State Groundwater Management Act. Also, we have substantial interest in the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. California has been a leader in protection of farmland and also restoration of wetlands. Throughout the years, California has lost almost 95% of their wetlands but we are working with farmers and ranchers to recover and restore them.
I mentioned the CSP earlier. We have received a historic $10 million to help farmers, ranchers and forest land managers enhance their level of stewardship. We have over 170 producers that applied for CSP. That is a historic number of CSP applicants – probably the largest in the last 10 years. Although we still do not have the value of those applications, we are very optimistic that we're going to spend that $10 million in those contracts for producers in 2020. I knew the potential was there for CSP. Our farmers, ranchers and forest managers our great stewards of the land and they definitely qualified for CSP, yet they were not taking advantage of it. So, we explained the benefits of the program and how they can get into the program. We're definitely planting the seeds to grow CSP into one of the top CSP programs in the nation.
6. Q. What about help for the dairy industry as they try to work on waste management? What is the role for NRCS?
A. Kudos go to our dairy producers who are also excellent stewards of the land. They understand very well not only the benefit of managing that waste in a sustainable manner but also taking advantage of it. We are working with different dairy organizations but also the CDFA which has a very strong dairy digester program. That program has seen some reductions in funding in the past few years. NRCS have always been solid in providing funding, but we have stepped up our game. Digesters are very expensive. It’s a practice that actually requires different funding from many private, state and federal levels. Last year, we funded 23 digesters at $9.5 million. Fifteen of them have already started construction and five actually are nearing completion in 2020. We have interest for funding for an additional 25 digesters. We anticipate that we're going to spend about the same amount of dollars or a little bit more in fiscal year 2020. In addition, we can provide technical assistance.
This is an excellent example of public-private partnerships where you have agencies like CDFA, Cal EPA, NRCS, energy companies, and others who understand the benefits of not only waste management through the digester, but also energy production.
7. Q. As you look at helping farmers and landowners meet SGMA goals, how do you view the role of adopting new technology?
A. The role of technology will be number one. And that allows me to talk a little bit of our strategic plan. About three weeks ago, we rolled out our California NRCS strategic plan and that feeds into the national plan but also address the resource needs of the state. One of the key parts of this strategic plan is making sure we use proven conservation technology, but also cutting-edge technology. And we have many organizations in the state that are developing such. Groundwater recharge is an example. I'm biased on this, but our premier academic institutions are developing new technology not only for groundwater recharge, but also for geographic information systems, precision agriculture, air quality, wildlife management and so forth. Technology is not only is going to be key now, but it's going to be key in the next 5-10 years and beyond. As we develop more technology, we are going to become more efficient and able to address the resource challenges that our state faces.
8. Q. If you had a take home message that you'd really like to deliver to farmers and ranchers who are producing food and fiber in your state, what would that be?
We are in this together. I'm proud of the agency, but we cannot achieve this work without the support of our partners at the local, state and federal levels, along with the non-government organizations, but also our number one partners who are farmers, ranchers, and forest managers. They are the ones who make it happen. We’re doing great things for conservation in California and we still have many opportunities to continue.
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