Even as the federal government invests more money into conservation, there’s not enough staff to provide the technical assistance farmers need to protect soil and water quality, says the Ohio no-till farmer who is the president of the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD).
“Insufficient technical assistance is the main barrier to conservation practice adoption,” NACD President Steve Robinson said in his July 1 testimony to the House Agriculture Committee.
“For example, Maryland Soil Conservation Districts have identified a shortfall of 96 staff needed to meet the increased workload resulting from the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL),” Robinson says.
“The public expects clean air, clean water, healthy soils and abundant wildlife habitat,” says Robinson, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat on a 900-acre-family farm near Marysville, Ohio.
He no-tills and strip-tills his corn and manages a family-owned excavation business that specializes in wetlands, ponds, waterways and rock chutes. He’s been a district supervisor for the Union County Soil and Water Conservation District since 1988.
Robinson says farmers and conservation staff would benefit from streamlined applications, less paperwork and increased compatibility of computer programs.
“We would like to see a full accounting of staffing and technology needs required to fully implement the Farm Bill conservation programs and accomplish our national and local conservation goals,” Robinson says.
The nation’s approximately 3,000 soil and water conservation districts are uniquely positioned to work with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services, technical service providers (TSP) and others to expand the delivery of technical assistance, he says.
Farmers face increasing regulations, says Robinson, who also singled out the needs of people who own small acreages.
“There is little to no technical assistance available for this quickly growing group,” Robinson says. “Small acreage landowners frequently are not eligible for federal assistance programs or rank low due to the scale of their operations.
"As consumers seeks more locally grown foods, it is imperative that these small-acreage landowners receive conservation technical assistance to meet their natural resource concerns.”
Robinson says the nation’s conservation districts have identified small-acreage resource issues as an important priority, but assistance for this important group of landowners remains limited.
“With the growing threat of regulations — such as the EPA’s new pesticide-permitting requirements under the Clean Water Act and the establishment of TMDLs in the Chesapeake Bay and other watersheds — private landowners will have an even tougher time navigating an already difficult maze of permits, regulations and bureaucracy,” Robinson warns.
“Landowners will be left with the enforcement and financial burdens of compliance without guidance or technology to do so. Technical assistance is an essential ingredient to help these landowners navigate through the complex maze of federal bureaucracy,” he says.
“Because they are known and trusted by local farmers and ranchers, conservation districts are frequently the liaison between the landowner and the federal and state agencies.”