Consultants take role in conservation

Agricultural consultants can provide the most cost-effective technical assistance for what is expected to be a well-funded conservation title in the next farm bill, according to a USDA official.

Such an opportunity is encouraging, say consultants. But they stress that Congress must also pass a commodity program that will keep farmers in business.

Mack Gray, USDA's acting deputy undersecretary for conservation, told attendees of the 2002 annual meeting of the National Alliance of Independent Crop Consultants in Albuquerque, N.M., that the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is expected to be a big part of the conservation title of the next farm bill.

“EQIP will likely be funded at around $1.2 billion (both House and Senate versions are around that figure), an unbelievable amount of money for conservation. You're going to see the Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program authorized out of mandatory funds at somewhere around $100 million.

“The Farmland Protection Program, which has been around $10 million to $20 million is going to be $50 million to $100 million. And the Wetlands Reserve Program is going to authorize something like 250,000 acres a year into wetlands reserve. Those kinds of numbers are astounding.”

The potential size of the program also means that the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) “does not and will not have the staff necessary to provide the technical assistance (to implement the programs),” Gray said. “NRCS is going to have to have some help. And there's no doubt in my mind that it's going to be third-part vendors (which includes independent crop consultants).”

Gray said that he would oppose any attempt by NRCS “to staff up to do all the work. If you have an agency that grows too big for its resources, it may have to have a reduction in force. That's very traumatic and very expensive.”

The driving force behind the process will be the new farm bill. Noted Gray, “I believe that the chances of us getting the type of money I've been talking about are 90 percent or better. That's going to drive a lot of interest in EQIP, conservation and nutrient management programs for third party vendors.”

Gray added that consultants could be paid for helping farmers implement conservation programs in two ways. “They could be paid directly on whatever technical assistance they provide. Or the producer could be given a voucher for technical assistance and be allowed to use any approved vendor.”

Gray pointed to one example of why EQIP needs the type of changes that he's advocating. “In one county in Texas, we had 68 applications in 2001 for EQIP cost-share. NRCS had to create an index where each of the 68 applications could be rated on the greatest environmental benefit for each dollar spent.

“NRCS had to go out and collect all this data on all 68 farms. When they got through, they had enough money left to fund two.

“The technical assistance time required in that case cost 200 to 300 percent of the cost of the practice. These are the types of things we have to get fixed. But I'm going to ride herd on it pretty close.”

Wisner, La., consultant and cotton producer Ray Young said consultants are very interested in helping growers with their conservation programs. “But if we don't get a decent commodity portion of the farm bill, we won't have much need for EQIP and nutrient management plans. Conservation is fine, but we have to have a commodity bill to keep us in business.

“I used to believe that if the government got completely out of our business, we'd do great,” Young added. “But I've grown up. That won't happen, not in the near future. We'd like to have more of our income coming from the market. But right now, we can't do that.”

EPA hopes to link components of the conservation title of the next farm bill with ongoing environmental efforts at the agency, including total maximum daily limits (TMDLs), according to Jean-Mari Peltier, counselor to the administrator of the EPA for ag policy.

“We want to encourage adoption of the best available technology and how we can use incentive programs through the farm bill or funding mechanisms at EPA.”

Peltier also stressed that things will be different at EPA under the Bush administration. “Part of the reason I was hired for this position was as a message to the agricultural community that we really don't want business as usual.” Prior to her hiring, the position was a part-time and held by full-time farmer.

“We want to make sure that the voices of agriculture are heard in the decision-making process. A lot of the federal agencies have had the attitude that all the wisdom resides in the Beltway. I think you'll see that while we'll continue to fight for our vision — which is to have the air cleaner, the water purer and the land better protected — our methods will be different.

“We are going to be looking for more active collaboration among all stakeholders. We're going to be looking for partnerships. We're going to be looking for opportunities for innovation in problem-solving.

“Issues relating to worker protection are going to continue to confound us over the next year or more,” Peltier added. “This is the area where there are exposures — primarily people who are out there when applications are being made. Very little ends up in a product by the time it makes it to the consumer's table.”

Peltier noted that a re-entry task force has been created to address the issue. “The question is what can be done to effectively protect human exposure, post application. Are there things that can be done with application technology, or personal protection equipment? We want you to help us come up with practical, scientifically valid ways of mitigating exposure.”

e-mail: [email protected].

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