Federal conservation programs are more popular than ever before, members of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Credit, Energy, and Research were told during an Oct. 7 hearing on the implementation of the farm bill’s conservation title.

The new Conservation Stewardship Program “is much more efficient, is better, is simpler to administer and is fairer to producers,” testified Dave White, chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). “We had the first sign-up that went from Aug. 10 to Sept. 30. It started out slow and (at the) end had exploded with interest.”

(For more, see www.nrcs.usda.gov/new_csp.)

Over 21,000 CSP applications that would cover about 33 million acres have been received by the NRCS.

“That’s absolutely huge. We can enroll up to 12.8 million acres. To tell you the truth, we thought that demand for conservation programs would go down because of the overall economic climate. It didn’t. Most programs saw an increase in applications.”

White then spoke of an initiative underway to streamline conservation program administration that, when complete, could “eliminate 80 percent of the clerical and administrative tasks our staff currently perform for farm bill programs. We think we can enable our field staff to spend 75 percent of their time in the field with farmers and ranchers instead of sitting behind a computer entering soil data and stuff like that.”

Later, when asked if the NRCS has adequate staff and resources, White said the “short answer is ‘no.’ We don’t have adequate staff and resources.

However, if the NRCS can move forward with its streamlining initiative,” we’ll begin implementing some of that in 2010. We’ll take away some of the administrative burden … which will have the effect of adding more staff.”

Further, the NRCS is “turning the allocation process (it) has used in the past on its head. In the past, you’d appropriate the money and we’d fund headquarters first. … The allocation formulas (meant) you’d go from state, area and, finally, the local level.

“We’re flipping that. We’ve got an initiative where we’ll fund the field first. So there’s not one district conservationist, one soil conservationist, one technician out there that needs to worry about their job. I want them to worry about doing their job, not whether they have a job.”

Those on the “sharp edge of the sword will be the priority for funding. If the budget passes as proposed, we’ll be able to get more money to the field level and fill some of those vacancies that are critical.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com