The Natural Resources Conservation Service is on its way to filling positions needed to deliver technical assistance and other services to farmers across the country, but still has a ways to go, NRCS Acting Chief Kevin Norton told a House Agriculture subcommittee Thursday.

“We are very close to 9,400 people, and that is at least 700 more than any number that we’ve had in the past two years, so we are on a positive trajectory, we are making inroads,” Norton said at a hearing before the panel's subcommittee on conservation and forestry.

Specifically, he said despite some disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, NRCS was been able to bring on board about 2,900 new employees in fiscal year 2020, about 1,300 more than joined the agency in fiscal 2019. In the fourth quarter of fiscal 2020 alone, NRCS was able to bring on 639 employees, he said.

But the total is still far short of NRCS’ goal of 10,445 employees, Norton said.

“We are beginning to see the staffing improve,” he said, adding that “the focus of all of these efforts are the field servicing points — those state offices down to the field office where we interact and connect with our customers"

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Growers and conservation districts have been calling for more employees to provide technical assistance. In written testimony, National Association of Conservation Districts President and Iowa farmer Tim Palmer said that with NRCS staffing falling short of the need, “Conservation districts have stepped up” to help fill the gap.

“Conservation district staff have always been involved in implementing federal conservation programs,” he said in his testimony. “However, conservation district staff are taking on a greater share of conservation delivery across the country. Although we would much rather see NRCS fully staffed, America’s conservation districts are ready and willing to continue assisting in meeting the needs at hand.”

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