Congratulations to new Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. USDA will be in good hands for development of the next Farm Bill. And I trust Secretary Perdue will carefully review agency programs and operations in the months ahead to identify strategies to save money and make government programs more farmer friendly. 

In January, we looked at regulatory rollbacks and suggested the new Administration look more deeply at how agricultural programs actually work and how they are administered as well as the rules that govern them. Getting farm programs right to make them farmer friendly involves simplifying applications and finding ways to share information within USDA so landowners don’t have to repeatedly provide the same data to various agencies they work with. Taking a fresh look at the processes agricultural agencies follow to run programs could enable them to streamline and speed things along to benefit the farmers and ranchers served. Too often the cost of partnering with government is too high. It’s just more trouble in time and paperwork than it’s worth. Maybe we can’t have applications that will fit on a postcard, but for smaller, more specific NRCS  contracts, for instance, could we have a simpler, less-detailed application, conservation plan and contract? This has been done on certain Rural Development programs; could it be done for NRCS, FSA and AMS offerings as well?

Looking more broadly, however, to really benefit program participants and taxpayers, it will take more than eliminating minor hassles, removing regulatory roadblocks, or ditching 11th hour rules promulgated by the previous Administration. There are a range of ideas which should be explored if we are seeking meaningful change that will improve conservation efforts for all concerned.

The last Farm Bill did a good job of consolidating conservation programs. The next one needs to do the same for Rural Development offerings. Let’s scrutinize those RD renewable energy programs. It seems like energy programs have been popping up like mushrooms. Every new renewable energy need has led to a separate program rather than falling under the umbrella of an existing renewable energy or conservation program. It’s complicated and confusing. Farmers shouldn’t need to hire consultants to determine what energy programs they might qualify for or to fill out the applications. Let’s consolidate, streamline and simplify those offerings.

Can we harness market forces to benefit taxpayers? If there’s greater demand for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) than the acreage cap, could there be a reverse auction, permitting landowners to offer to accept a lower price to put land in conservation? And could we get by with fewer seeding requirements for those acres? Is a commonly available, less expensive seed formula good enough?

While we’re talking CRP, what about acreage size? Smaller tracts, like a wetland covering a few acres, might produce greater benefit at less cost than the 20-acre minimum now required under my state’s CRP’s State Acres For wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) program. For my ranch, this would mean idling 20 acres out of an 80-acre field to provide the benefit of the three-acre wetland. The alternative CRP option available for enrolling the farmed wetland would require fencing it off if I want to graze the corn stalks or the cover crops during the fall after harvest. Given these two options, I likely will not enroll. We need to use common sense and simplify the implementation of these regulations.  

And should we make changes in the practice standards that are the backbone of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)? Are they cost-effective, appropriate and flexible enough to get the most bang for the taxpayer’s and the landowner’s buck? I repeatedly hear from farmers who don’t use the NRCS programs because the standards are over-engineered and increase the cost beyond the level of assistance. For example, on my ranch, the concrete specification for a water tank foundation is so solid, it’ll likely outlast the pyramids in Giza. Is that really necessary or would a less concrete work just as well? “Perfect” can too easily become the enemy of “good.” When is good, good enough?

Finally, another important consideration that must be addressed is timing. Check the calendar—there’s a season to plant, a season to harvest and a season to make decisions. Decision making season for those who farm is the winter. Let’s find ways to get decisions on applications lined up not with the federal fiscal year but the growing seasons. Farmers need thumbs up or down during their planning times, not when the crop is in the ground and the cattle are ready to move to pasture.

As the new Administration evaluates programs and processes, it’s important to dig deeply enough to really hit pay dirt—in terms of maximizing taxpayer dollars and minimizing obstacles for landowners. It is essential that our Secretary look beyond regulations and procedures alone to make real improvements and making government more farmer friendly for those who participate in agricultural conservation programs. Let’s eliminate the unnecessary rules; but let’s also simplify the cost of partnering with Uncle Sam on USDA conservation as well as rural development and other programs. A win-win for all. 

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.