Conservation Technical Assistance should not get lost in the shuffle

Farmers understand the importance of sustainability and conservation in ag practices Yesterday, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced a massive reorganization of the agency. Among other changes, the Secretary plans to create a new Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation to oversee the Farm Service Agency (FSA), the Risk Management Agency (RMA), and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Previously, NRCS reported to the Undersecretary of Natural Resources and the Environment, and both RMA and FSA reported to the Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services.

On the surface, combining conservation and farm productivity programs makes sense, since sustainability is almost always good for a producer’s bottom line. Reducing duplication and bureaucracy between these agencies could streamline efforts to implement conservation practices while protecting farmers’ incomes. However, a lot remains to be seen and will depend on who fills the Undersecretary position.

No matter who fills that role, Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA) funding and outreach should remain a top priority under the new organization. Here’s why.

CTA is the foundation of NRCS

CTA is the backbone of all voluntary conservation programs at NRCS because it pays for the experts, the tools, and the resources needed to help farmers implement stewardship activities on their fields.

Farmers are smart and resourceful and could probably get a lot done on their own, but technical advice is always beneficial – much like you wouldn’t install new plumbing at your house without some expert help. Resources provided by NRCS include help in designing a nutrient management plan to save money on inputs, or creating a whole-farm conservation plan that addresses geographically specific concerns.

This expert technical assistance also provides the basis for implementation of the programs authorized by the farm bill, such as the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which offers reimbursement to farmers for the cost of adopting conservation practices.

CTA makes good financial sense

Farmers understand the importance of sustainability and conservation in ag practices Combining the financial assistance of these farm bill programs with the advice from NRCS technical experts provides a win-win for both farmers and landowners because it ensures that conservation practices are implemented effectively the first time around. Without this technical assistance and on-the-ground help, USDA’s financial assistance programs for private landowners lose value and efficiency. In other words, measure twice and cut once.

Congress has generally been supportive of CTA because they know the value it provides to farmers and the environment, and that it provides the most efficient bang for the taxpayer’s buck. That’s why it included a $7 million increase in CTA in this year’s recently passed Omnibus appropriations bill. However, not everyone understands CTA’s value and some are advocating that this account be eliminated.

Questions also remain given the new proposed reorganization of NRCS, as a lot will depend on the leadership of the new Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation. The best candidate would be someone committed to the long-term success of production agriculture, strong environmental outcomes, and programs that improve farm resiliency – especially CTA.

Ultimately, as long as conservation priorities do not take a back seat to farm production goals, both the environment and farmers can benefit.

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