Agricultural Conservation Programs Continue Operation Amid the Pandemic – Updated

by Niccolo Bechtler

U.S. agricultural conservation programs succeeded in continuing to work nationwide, despite challenges posed by understaffing and the coronavirus pandemic, according to a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry Thursday morning.

The subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture questioned Kevin Norton, acting chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture that offers technical conservation support to farmers and private landowners. According to Norton, simply maintaining conservation programs during the pandemic is a victory. 

“When this all started, we really did have some concerns about our ability to continue to deliver these programs,” Norton said. “But 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, so it is quite a success.”

Subcommittee Chair Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., questioned Norton about NRCS actions to help farmers, such as those in her state, during the pandemic.

“[Conservation] is essential to helping farmers build resiliency, boost their bottom line, improve production, stimulate local economies,” Spanberger said. “We know these things to be true, but certainly during the COVID-19 crisis, farmers are facing such significant challenges.”

Norton responded that the NRCS installed conservation measures, such as irrigation systems that prevent water pollution and cover crops that impede soil erosion, on over 1 million acres of farmland during the last year. The NCRS kept farmers supported in conservation efforts despite social distancing regulations, he said.

“We were very much a face-to-face, engaging agency,” Norton said. “It is remarkable how successful we have been in using the technologies around us to engage with those producers.”

Norton stressed the value of flexibility in the NRCS’s conservation efforts, since the US contains a wide variety of ecosystems and terrain. This adaptability allows the NCRS to help farmers produce food with minimal environmental impact, Norton said.

“We are a nation that produces,” Norton said. “We feed our people, we feed the world, and we do it in a very sustainable fashion.” 

Ranking Member Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., pressed Norton about issues of understaffing at the NRCS. He cited a workforce analysis that suggested the agency was not operating at sufficient capacity.

Norton acknowledged that the NRCS lacks the workforce to give each farmer the attention they need. He referred to the two types of productivity study taking place at the organization, though he did not describe how the studies were conducted.

“As you all discussed in the last hearing,” Norton said, “we are not at a staffing level that we need to be by any of those tools that we’re using: the Optimally Productive Office and the Cycle Time Study.”

Norton said that he remains optimistic about hiring a sufficient workforce in the near future. The NRCS currently has 700 more employees than ever before, Norton said, and is on track to reach its goal of just over 11,000 workers, though he did not specify the time-frame of this goal.

“Whether that’s enough when we get there, we need to get there first,” Norton said. “We know we are understaffed, but we are gaining staff.”

LaMalfa also questioned Norton about protective measures the NRCS put in place in response to wildfires in the representative’s home state of California. The fires are one of the most pressing concerns in his constituency, LaMalfa said.

The NRCS is working with the California branch of the US National Forest Service to help fireproof private lands, Norton said, though he did not elaborate on the specific means of the fireproofing. 

“We saw a success in one of the fires a couple of years ago in 2018,” Norton said. “They used the properties that we had actually done the forest stewardship on. That was a place that they went to put the preventive measures to stop the fire from spreading.” 

The NRCS is working to hire larger forestry staff in areas prone to forest fires, Norton said, but their firefighting work ultimately depends on staff and funding at the local level.

“We are looking at picking up additional forestry staff for our people,” Norton said. “That’s again about the state conservationists making decisions about what they need.”

The subcommittee also questioned a panel of experts from various public and private agricultural conservation organizations, which largely supported Norton’s claims about the successes and challenges of conservation during the pandemic.

Tim Palmer, one panelist, is the president of the National Association of Conservation Districts, an organization that advocates for legislative support of the country’s 3,000 conservation districts. These county-level agencies use public and private aid for conservation projects such as restoring wetlands and planting trees.

Conservation work makes farmers and their surrounding areas more resilient, both economically and environmentally, Palmer said.

“Conservation has a positive impact on local communities,” Palmer said.

Conservation districts nationwide continued to support farmers’ conservation work in 2020 despite pandemic restrictions on face-to-face interaction, which Palmer said he regards as a success.

“The adoption of conservation practices provides opportunities to strengthen both our natural resources and our local economies,” Palmer said.

Conservation programs were hindered, however, by the lack of NRCS staff, Palmer said, reflecting Norton’s testimony about his agency’s challenges in 2020.

“Any cut in district staff will have a direct effect on the delivery of conservation programs,” Palmer said.

Also on the panel was Dr. Karen Waldrop, chief conservation officer of Ducks Unlimited, a nonprofit that works to preserve the wetland habitats of waterfowl. Protecting these areas also benefits people, Waldrop said, because wetlands help regulate water quality and purify soil.

The pandemic posed challenges to Ducks Unlimited because numerous in-person fundraising events were canceled due to social distancing guidelines, costing the organization millions of dollars in donations, Waldrop said.

Ducks Unlimited maintained its regular conservation efforts despite funding losses, Waldrop said, deeming the year a success and thanking members of the organization’s staff who endured difficult conditions in order to keep working.

“They stayed in campers and trailers and ice fish houses to be able to continue to deliver their important conservation work,” Waldrop said. 

Steve Patterson, senior vice president of corporate marketing at farmer-owned agricultural supply company Southern States Cooperative, and Jonathan Coppess, a professor in the department of agriculture and consumer economics at the University of Illinois, also spoke on the panel.

Coppess predicted that returns on staple crops such as corn and soybeans will drop in the next year. Federal agencies will need to invest in local farming conservation infrastructure, he said, in order to protect farmers from economic ruin.

“I see a lot of opportunity to invest in the people that help carry this out,” Coppess said.

Patterson expressed optimism about 2020 due to the year’s advances in nitrogen-replacement technologies, he said, which can purify soil more efficiently than ever before.

LaMalfa concluded the hearing by speaking about conservation work over the coming year. Partnerships between public entities, such as the NRCS, and private companies, such as Ducks Unlimited, will be essential for the future of conservation for wildlife habitats as well as farmland, he said.

“Our doors are open for continued work,” LaMalfa said.

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