UPDATED: Despite COVID-19 restrictions, conservation agencies 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 agencies voiced their concerns about the impact COVID-19 restrictions have had on budget cuts and reduced government cooperation before the House Agriculture Conservation and Forestry Subcommittee on Thursday. 

            Although Congress has provided mandatory funding for conservation programs through the 2018 Farm Bill, the agencies stressed the importance of continuing and increasing that aid to support their farmers, ranchers and forest managers in light of the pandemic.

          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’ ability to serve conservation communities. NRCS is an agency of the USDA that provides technical assistance to conservation communities, which is 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 of their conservation programs to farmers, ranchers and forest stewards.

            “When I reflect back on 2020 and the challenges that were laid out before us, it is only because of the resiliency of the entire NRCS team, from the field level through to our national office,” Norton said, “the adjustments that we made in being more flexible about our services, and that we, NRCS and our partners that are helping us service the customers, have been able to achieve the accomplishments that we had this past year.”

            Norton said the pandemic was the most important challenge the NRCS faced, but it did create some opportunities such as making web and phone services more readily available to clients and staff. During this year, NRCS completed 115,000 conservation plans with producers. NRCS installed conservation practices, like no-tilling farming that stops soil disruption and cover crops that nourishes the soil, to restore wildlife habitats on over 1 million acres of land. 

            Norton said he had some concerns about their ability to continue delivering services from home due to new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but the USDA gave NSCR the freedom to continue operating safely.  

            “The Department gave us a latitude to still get into the field to be there and to be available,” Norton said, “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. 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. 

            Spanberger asked 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, which allowed NRCS to provide different conservation needs based on different states’ landscapes, and should continue to do so. 

            “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. 

            Tim Palmer spoke about the importance of the conservation delivery system and the National Association of Conservation Districts’ (NACD) role in providing natural resource management programs at the local level. Palmer is the president of 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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