WASHINGTON, Feb. 4, 2015 – With fewer federal resources, private partners are essential to increasing conservation efforts, USDA leaders told conservation experts at the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) 2015 Annual Meeting in New Orleans. They said expanding partnerships outside federal, state and nonprofit organizations to other, non-traditional groups represents the next era for conservation initiatives.
In her address, USDA Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden challenged the more than 900 NACD members in attendance to expand their efforts with a broader base of partners, including corporations. She emphasized the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, created through the 2014 farm bill, as one way districts can boost their influence.
“Expanding that partnership is what RCPP is about…bringing more people to the table, getting more people invested. And the funding still goes to farmers, ranchers and landowners,” Harden said.
NRCS Chief Jason Weller also highlighted RCPP as an important way to increase partnerships with private companies and other non-traditional partners. The more than 600 applications and $3 billion in matching dollars that USDA received for the first round of the RCPP is “a huge indicator of what the potential is with this approach,” Weller said.
Other approaches he emphasized include engaging the private marketplace through water quality trading and carbon trading. In addition to food and fiber, farmers also produce water, air, and habitat, he noted. “As we’re moving into new era of scarcity, all those things are starting to accrue a value,” Weller said. Examples of efforts to harness this value include the Ohio River Basin Water Quality Trading Project, which allows water utilities to pay farmers for maintaining cleaner water, and the Ducks Unlimited partnership with General Motors, which allows ranchers to maintain healthy grasslands, and therefore offset carbon emissions, in exchange for payments from GM.
Lastly, he said institutional investors like JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs are becoming increasingly interested in conservation finance and investing in cropland production, timber management and other conservation-minded efforts.
“We want to tell them to come work with us,” Weller said. “In actuality, we’re the world’s biggest business consulting firm. You have a lot of sophisticated knowledge these folks are looking for.”
When it comes to farm bill implementation, Weller said NRCS is completing the task of streamlining conservation programs, and that new programs will help NRCS employees deliver advice to farmers and ranchers. The first streamlining phase includes the online Client Gateway that allows one farmer’s information on NRCS contracts, payments, conservation plans and other documents to be accessed in one online portal. NRCS has 300 early adopters testing the Client Gateway and expects to push it nationwide in “a month or two.”
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