WASHINGTON, January 18, 2012 -Many farmers oppose new environmental regulations, but a chance to voluntarily comply with regulations in exchange for some type of “certainty” carries some appeal ‑ especially when stiff fines or lawsuit-happy environmental groups are presented as alternatives. But as with most “grand solutions” to long-standing environmental challenges, the devil is always in the details.

Such was the case when Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson rolled into St. Paul, Minn., on Tuesday to announce that USDA, EPA and the state of Minnesota would sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for a new state program designed to increase voluntary adoption of conservation practices that protect lakes, streams, and other water bodies. Gov. Mark Dayton signed on and Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Dave White was also on hand for the ceremony in the Minnesota Capitol.

Although USDA is involved with other state watershed efforts, this is the first time the agency became actively engaged at the start of a state and federal effort to find pro-active solutions. It marks a sharp contrast to the regulatory environment in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, where USDA and EPA are often at odds over conservation planning and data.

According to the MOU, producers who undertake a substantial level of conservation activities to reduce nutrient run-off and erosion will receive assurance from the state that their farms will meet Minnesota's water quality standards and goals during the 10-year life of the agreement. Both Vilsack and Jackson affirmed their support for this voluntary approach.

Next steps? Develop the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program (AWQCP) to increase the adoption of recommended conservation practices to improve water quality on agricultural land. But this is where the details get in the way of both farmers and environmental groups giving their overwhelming support.

A Technical Advisory Committee, whose membership will be heavily scrutinized, will be appointed to develop the certification program. According to the MOU, the committee will solicit input from stakeholders in designing the criteria to provide certainty for producers and Minnesota will test the program in several pilot watersheds.

Minnesota Commissioner of Agriculture Dave Frederickson said the planning for Minnesota's new voluntary certification program for farmers will start next week. "So let the wild rumpus begin," he said, referring to the jockeying behind the committee member selection processs.

"Establishment of this program will protect our water resources by providing assurances and incentives to participating farmers that their good deeds – their strong commitment to conservation – will be recognized," Vilsack said. "Farmers will know the rules of the game while the state, EPA and the public will know that this program will lead to cleaner water."

But some farm organizations, while encouraged about the opportunities, were lukewarm about the effort. They want a more clear-cut description of what “regulatory certainty” entails.

“While a voluntary, producer led certification program has potential to help demonstrate farmers' commitment to conservation, we have more questions than answers at this point, and will be waiting for further clarification and explanation from the parties to this agreement,” said Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap.

Fairmont farmer and Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center (MAWRC) Chairman Lawrence Sukalski expressed a willingness to move forward with the concept, noting that “it would create new opportunities, allowing farmers to work with someone they already know and trust, such as an agronomist or agriculture teacher, on a voluntary basis, to evaluate their farming practices from a water quality perspective.”

But MAWRC Executive Director Warren Formo said “This is a ‘the devil’s in the details’ situation. An effective certification program needs to recognize the vast diversity of farms while incorporating new advances in technology, geology, weather and other factors.”

Environmental groups weren’t exactly jumping for joy either. Steve Morse, executive director of the 79-member Minnesota Environmental Partnership, said more work is needed.

“As it stands now, this proposal is very vague. It does not provide the certainty that we need that our waters will become clean and healthy,” said Morse. “There are no assurances that the practices farm operators adopt, when added together, will get the results Minnesotans expect. Once the technical and stakeholders committees are appointed, we urge them to establish strong oversight so that Minnesotans who drink the water that comes from our rivers and eat the fish from our lakes will be assured that everyone – including agriculture – does their share to protect our water.”

While the concept of “regulatory certainty” is new to protection of water quality, "certainty agreements" have been successful for encouraging private landowners to conserve wildlife habitat, points out NRCS Chief Dave White. For example, NRCS helped 11 Western states establish a certainty process to protect the sage-grouse.

In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recommended the sage-grouse for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), but determined that other species were higher priorities. In September 2011, a federal judge approved a settlement with environmental groups requiring listing decisions on 253 species within five years.

The sage-grouse effort has resulted in an increase of the bird's habitat on private ranch land in the West. It’s a win/win situation because the same factors that negatively affect sage grouse also affect the sustainability of native grazing lands. Eventually, USDA and its partners hope to duplicate this success in addressing water quality on agricultural lands across the nation.

“The upside opportunity is so great,” says NRCS Chief Dave White. “This is just the beginning of our efforts to help provide regulatory certainty.”



Original story printed in January 18, 2012 Agri-Pulse Newsletter.

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