As the Trump Administration continues to name new people to its team and farmers continue to await confirmation of a Secretary of USDA, I know it will be a while before a new Chief for the Natural Resources Conservation Service is named and takes office. But I want to get ahead of the game by offering some advice to the incoming Chief now: Follow the science and focus on the greatest impact in furthering the NRCS Mission of “Helping People Help the Land.”
It’s tempting to get drawn to the issue of the day or the priority of the moment or to be swayed by one creative proposal or attractive idea or another. But the key to accomplishing results for the taxpayers who are funding the programs Congress has authorized and the agency is committed to administer is to direct programs and funds to meet the mandates of the agency. That means keeping the soil on the land, improving water and air quality, increasing wildlife habitat and reducing energy use and the carbon footprint. The science tells you how to do that most effectively.
Conservation is about maintaining and enhancing the resources we all share, about helping landowners address issues on their land to benefit us all. Every decision the new Chief makes should be evaluated on the basis of the conservation benefits it provides as determined by the best science and measurement information available.
It’s important to be sure that small farmers, minority landowners, new operators, organic farmers and others are included in NRCS programs. But it’s essential to consider where the greatest environmental gains can be found and where to direct the bulk of human, technical and financial resources. As stated on the USDA website, with roughly 70% of the lower 48 owned by private landowners, NRCS works to help those farmers, ranchers and forest landowners “boost agricultural productivity and protect our natural resources through conservation.”
Urban agriculture efforts on vacant city land can provide benefits to city dwellers, but are unlikely to produce significant improvements in water quality or quantity. Or lead to reductions in soil erosion. Hoop houses can extend the growing season for farmers producing vegetables in northern climates, but have limited environmental impact on soil erosion or water quality. All laudable initiatives but I ask if they are furthering the science and the most effective use of limited resources in NRCS’ mission of conserving and maintaining and improving our natural resources and environment. While the previous Administration funded these projects under NRCS programs, my recommendation is to appropriately leave the hoop houses and rooftop gardens to Extension and local initiatives.
Instead, NRCS should travel down the road a bit back to farm country. EQIP assistance at a livestock operation can help fund waste management strategies such as a digester that will improve water quality for the city folks as well as those who like to fish. Or invest in buffer strips to filter water and halt erosion on a commercial crop operation. Or sign a contract to improve irrigation on a ranch and reduce water usage. Following the science will enable NRCS to get the biggest bang for the taxpayers’ buck and remain true to the intended purpose of agricultural conservation programs.
Unfortunately, EQIP funding today is only adequate to accept one of four applications, so there’s a backlog of worthy environmental conservation projects. Remember that delivery costs mount up quickly for multiple small contracts. That’s an important consideration especially given that larger contracts on commercial farms and ranches or through group projects can produce greater environmental gains in a more timely manner through economies of scale.
So, to the new NRCS Chief, I say: Take a look at the Farm Bill. Note the mandates Congress gave NRCS. Review the programs the agency administers to accomplish its mission. Pay attention to the budget and the cost of delivery. Determine priorities for funding based on a scientific approach designed to produce the greatest environmental returns for the taxpayers’ investment. Keep your eyes on the goals—cleaner air and water, reduced erosion, increased water quantity, enhanced wildlife habitat—and you will serve landowners and taxpayers well.
About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems.