Bruce Knight, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) chief, continues to oversee an agency in the midst of change. As farmers look to the next growing season, NRCS program rules and regulations are solidifying. In setting the programs up, Knight has been handed the responsibility of properly allocating generous funds from the new farm bill.

The response to conservation programs, he says, “has been absolutely amazing. And interest continues to grow.”

In September, Knight spoke with Delta Farm Press on a variety of subjects. Here's a recent follow-up interview.

Where do things stand now at NRCS? Anything stand out as a hot topic that you're dealing with?

Let me give you a status report on the farm bill. We're in the meat-and-potatoes of it, and, in the end, what we do now will make a world of difference later in how the programs work.

We've been plowing through rules in all of USDA as quickly as we can. Delivery of the farm programs is job one for every single agency that makes up USDA. FSA has done a great job with getting through the first round of sign-ups, getting checks out and starting to look at other applications.

Now, we're entering the next phase of things to work on. For us, that's getting the conservation programs out, allowing time for comment and things like that. Back in October, we published two rules: an adjusted gross income rule and a farmland protection program rule. Those are out for comment and we're awaiting the results.

Last week, we published another rule — in an interim final status — for the technical service providers. This is important because it's a declaration about how we're going to tap into the consultant community and non-government organization (NGO) community to help us deliver conservation. We need them because we've got more to do than we've got employees to do it. I'm optimistic that before the end of November we could be releasing the rule for comment on the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

On the NGOs, the last time we spoke you said Congress had given you the capacity for hiring these folks. What will they be doing?

What they'll be doing will vary from state to state and community to community. Their work will be based on needs. A state conservationist will try to make an assessment of what the workload is in the state, what the capacity is of NRCS staff to deliver and what the capacity is of private consultants to help.

We've got consultants already that help with nutrient management plans and IPM (Integrated Pest Management) plans. Now, the question is: are they ready to go to the next step? Can they move to the next level — for example, things that have to do with livestock for comprehensive nutrient management plans. Can engineers help us with wetland restoration in the WRP program? Or, can engineers help us in our restoration of dams? Each state will make assessments of what their needs are and then try and find consultants to help backfill where they're needed.

On assistance to get these programs started… does NRCS still have the workforce available to get these programs running well? With all this interest, do you need to hire new NRCS employees?

We're still making those assessments.

The big unknown right now — and the reason we moved so aggressively to get the technical service provider rule published — is how accurate are the internal estimates of the capacity of tech service providers, how many folks will be in the field, how many businesses will be available and how many will expand to help us deliver conservation. So, we must know how much private sector conservation we can access. That must be answered before we can look at any additional capacity needs for NRCS.

The last time we spoke you said WRP (Wetlands Reserve Program) was scheduled to get $270 million and that would allow 250,000 acres to be enrolled in the program. Does that still hold true?

The total acreage on WRP for the life of the farm bill is capped at 2.275 million acres. We're allowed to enroll up to 250,000 acres per year. If we ever fall short of that acreage, we can roll that shortfall into the following years.

What about the CSP (Conservation Security Program)? Has anything been solidified with regard to this program?

It's fascinating. Every month the interest in the farm community for this program seems to be expanding. We're continuing to work quietly on the rules and regulations. We're also working internally on the capacity that must be in place in order to deliver on those rules and regulations.

An example: CSP takes us to a different approach for rewarding farmers for existing conservation or for conservation above where we are today. As such, we must look at our standards and practices in a different light. How do we move forward on that? Before we go out with a rule and publish it, we must know exactly how to implement it. We're in the process of moving from minimum standards to those that are encouraging of enhancements and excellence.

We're on track with that. We're meeting with small groups of farmers trying to ascertain their questions and needs. We want to know how policy will intersect with what will actually happen on the farm.

At one time CSP was just going to be a pilot program. Is that still up in the air?

The pilot program is written in the House appropriations package. There's nothing comparable to that in the Senate. As of late November, we're still waiting for Congress to finalize a budget deal that will tell us not only exact directions for CSP, but for all of agriculture spending for 2003.

Meanwhile, we continue to develop rules for a national program. We develop rules for what's in law, and the national program is what's in law. Until Congress says otherwise, that's how we'll proceed. And secondarily, even if this is judged a pilot program, it will likely go nationwide at some point.

A couple of months ago we spoke on EQIP. You said there were folks wanting dollars going to specific areas. You mentioned the dairy industry and how some didn't want money going to confined dairy operations with large waste management systems. Is there continuing pressure from environmental groups and have your views changed due to it?

Pressure continues to mount on both sides of that issue. Thus far, my statements about managing the program in a size-neutral manner — that the size of an operation is an individual and not a government concern — stands. I've been well-pleased with how we've been able to stay by that and how folks from both sides of the issue have come to respect it.

On CSP, the plan originally called for three tiers of conservation. Does that still hold true?

Absolutely. That's laid out in statute and we continue to work on constructing those tiers to make sure we have an effective program. We want to promote additional conservation and provide rewards and incentives for good conservation.

During the previous interview, you were concerned there would be a lack of funds available to accommodate all those wanting in on programs. From what you've said today, it seems that concern has been ratcheted up even higher.

That's certainly true with CSP and also with some of the other programs.

I've just been looking through some very fresh data on sign-ups for EQIP last year. We closed out the year with a $1.4 billion backlog on that program. We're looking at $700 million funding for the program this year. That means we'll have $2 in demand for every $1 we have to invest. We'll have to make some tough decisions.

What about WHIP?

The rules are completed and we're moving on it. Last year, it was a $15 million program in total. Next fiscal year, if all goes well, we expect it to be a $30 million program. It will double again in 2004 to $60 million.

I hold a lot of hope for this program as a means to provide a lot of outreach to much of the Delta in increasing habitat for the bobwhite quail and to accentuate the wildlife habitat needs beyond what's available through WRP and other programs.


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com.

Bruce Knight, Natural Resources Conservation Service chief, will be one of the lead-off speakers for the Beltwide Cotton Production Conference in Nashville, Tenn., Jan. 7. For more information about Knight and other speakers, see NCC's Website at www.cotton.org.