The Natural Resources Conservation Service is struggling to meet the Biden administration's growing climate and sustainability goals — and handle billions in new conservation funds — due to challenges in finding people to replace its aging workforce.

While speaking to grower groups at Commodity Classic, NRCS Chief Terry Cosby said last year they hired 800 new employees and only 500 stayed on the job. NRCS had direct hiring authority to bring in about 1,500 new employees. In the coming years, Cosby said NRCS anticipates needing as many as 3,000 more employees, joking he'll consider “anyone with a pulse” to apply for the many available jobs.

Cosby said it’s “more about the cash than the career” to many recent college graduates, and many industry positions can provide pay twice as high.

USDA Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation Robert Bonnie said he recognizes there’s a need to expedite hiring timelines, and USDA is also looking at compensation, retention bonuses and other actions to make sure the department is seen as an attractive employer.

Robert Bonnie 2USDA Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation Robert Bonnie

Not all the positions require college degrees, which range from technical positions to administrative positions, Cosby said. The most challenging open position to fill is engineers, especially those who have an agricultural background or understand ag-specific needs such as animal waste facilities, Cosby said.

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Cosby, who first joined NRCS in 1979, argued it takes about seven visits to a farm before that person is ready to install any type of conservation practice, and it takes three to five years to train an employee to go out and have such conversations with producers.

“The worst mistake you can make is send an unexperienced person that does not know what they’re talking about,” to a farm, Cosby said. “If you’re not ready to have that conversation, you probably won’t be back on that farm again. And you probably turn that person off for life.”

Cosby said as the agency needs to hire thousands of more employees, the training will be important to give the best advice. The COVID-19 pandemic caused a lot of training problems for NRCS, Cosby admitted; much of the training needed is hands-on and on-farm education that simply cannot be replicated virtually. Employee training is getting back out in the field, which Cosby said is necessary to replenish the knowledge base for new employees.

The Inflation Reduction Act provided about $19 billion in conservation funding, including $1 billion to provide funds to administratively execute those programs. Cosby said NRCS will be evaluating the nearly 100,000 backlogged applications and looking to expand conservation implementation that will also require additional staff assistance.

Bonnie said NRCS wants to use some of those IRA dollars to partner with Conservation Technical Assistance providers, including those employed by ag retailers or conservation districts. He sees those partnerships as an important way to get NRCS people on the ground to “get them training by doing, but also make sure our customers are getting good service.”

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