Despite COVID-19 restrictions, conservation organizations continue to try to support their communities

Subcommittee Chair Rep. Abigail Spanberger asking the panel of witnesses about staffing shortages in conservation programs. 

By Morgan Bluma 

            Various conservation organizations voiced concerns for more funding and government cooperation to continue their efforts of technical support for farmers, ranchers and forest managers before the House Agriculture Conservation and Forestry Subcommittee on Thursday in light of recent COVID-19 restrictions. 

          The discussion surrounded President Trump’s Farm Bill that provides support for conservation efforts of farmers, ranchers and forest managers through reauthorization and expanded flexibility of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) conservation programs. The Farm Bill was signed into law on Dec. 20, 2018, which is the primary agricultural and food policy tool of the federal government. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) implemented this bill. 

            Subcommittee Chair Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D) from Virginia’s 7th District, opened the discussion by emphasizing how COVID-19 has disrupted NRCS’, an agency of the USDA that provides technical assistance to farmers and landowners, ability to serve conservation communities. Conservation communities are groups of people living in a community that is dedicated to saving the land from the depletion of natural resources.

            “We’re here today to examine the ways NRCS is adjusting to the new normal of serving customers and administering programs amid the pandemic,” Spanberger said. 

“How producers and farmers are utilizing conservation during these dual crises, what challenges NRCS is experiencing, what successes the agency has had that we can build upon and what role conservation could play in the up and coming, hopefully, economic recovery.”

            Ranking Member Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R) from California’s 1st District, began by expressing gratitude to farmers and ranchers for their continued efforts throughout the pandemic while other businesses were shut down. 

            “So, while much was shut down, farmers and ranchers continued to make sure the Americans still had access to the safest, most abundant and most affordable food supply in the world,” LaMalfa said. “The season does not wait for [the] virus.” 

            Acting Chief of NRCS Kevin Norton testified that these unprecedented times have added unusual pressures on staff but that they are resilient and dedicated to ensuring service delivery to their customers. Norton said NRCS did not cease operations at all in any of their offices during the pandemic while still following COVID-19 protocols to continue delivering fieldwork.

            “As you said Mr. LaMalfa, agriculture never stopped,” Norton said. “We had to be there for them.”

            Norton said although the pandemic was a challenge, it did create some opportunities such as making web and phone services more readily available to clients and staff. During this year, NCRS completed 115,000 conservation plans with producers. NCRS installed conservation practices, like no-tilling farming, which is an agricultural technique for growing crops without disturbing the soil, and cover crop, which is a crop that is grown for the benefit of the soil rather than the crop yield, to maintain and restore wildlife habitat on over 1 million acres of land. Norton said he had some concerns about their ability to continue delivering services from home but those concerns are gone now.

            “And by the time we closed out the year yesterday, we saw very little impact on the work that we needed to do throughout the year,” Norton said, “so it was quite a success.”

            Previously, the committee had concerns about staffing levels within NRCS and whether they would be able to improve those numbers. Norton said that although they have not met their hiring goal of 10,445 positions, they have hired 2,900 new employees and are on a positive hiring trajectory despite the impact of COVID-19. 

            When asked by Spanberger about what flexibilities members of Congress should consider for conservation programs to help maintain engagement and reduce uncertainty, Norton said that the Farm Bill had provided a lot of flexibility based on the different conservation needs of different states’ landscapes. 

            “Having those flexibilities so that we can shape that conservation program delivery to what is needed is the thing that we need to continue,” Norton said. 

           Norton said these programs have been a part of rebuilding the economy, continuing economic engagement and extending proper conservation practices beyond the farm into communities.

            “We need to help,” Norton said. “We need to be there with these programs, these dollars, to help our conservation, our farmers, our ranchers, our forest landowners. Those people on the ground, we need to help them move conservation and adapt and adjust.”

            Additional panel witnesses stressed the importance of continued support and funding from local and state governments as well as staffing needs. Nutrient management consultant Steve Patterson said technical support for farmers, like regular soil testing, through precision agriculture technology is important and needed to maintain healthy soil and nutrients. He is the senior vice president of corporate marketing and government affairs at Southern States Cooperative, a farm-owned retail and service cooperatives based in Richmond, Virginia.

            “As was already mentioned, continu[ing] to increase funding for conservation programs from the state and federal governments is needed to reach those goals,” Patterson said. 

            Nonprofit leader Tim Palme spoke about the importance of the conservation delivery system and NACD’s role in providing natural resource management programs at the local level. Palmer is the president of the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD), an organization that represents 3,000 conservation districts in America. In addition, Palmer said conservation practices require technical assistance and equipment to become a driver of economic health and ease the burden on local infrastructures like bridges and culverts. 

            “Implementing conservation practices makes operations more resilient whether facing weather extremes or economic challenges,” Palmer said. 

            Chief Conservation Officer at Ducks Unlimited Karen Waldrop said sustainable conservation practices help with the importance of water quality and a shared commitment to cultivating healthier ecosystems. 

            “It’s not only through the partnerships that we’ve created with producers and the dedicated NRCS staff,” Waldrop said. “Without those partnerships and those dedicated NRCS staff across the country, we wouldn’t have been able to deliver our conservation efforts and continue them today.”

            The last to testify, assistant professor at the University of Illinois Johnathan Coppess stressed the importance of competition for land conservation inspired by his dad, who used to be one of the first farmers to use new conservation practices but he never was able to make large profits.

            Spanberger and LaMalfa closed out the hearing by acknowledging how helpful conservation programs are achieving great partnerships with farmers and pushing forward on innovative conservation practices amid COVID-19. 

            “As we continue to implement conservation programs under the 2018 Farm Bill, take active measures to continue to protect the environment and combat the climate crisis,” Spanberger said. “We look ahead to work together towards our economic recovery, these conservations are so vitally important and certainly in the back of all of our minds.

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