Only on the job for four months, Bruce Knight has definite ideas about where government conservation efforts should go. Knight, the chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), is focused on setting up new programs, shifting existing program emphases and moving power away from Washington and placing it in local and state hands.

In attempting to achieve results, Knight certainly won't be hurt by lack of money. With passage of the new farm bill, the NRCS is flush with funds. Of course, as Knight points out, that money must still be properly parceled out — something he's keen to make sure happens.

Raised on a farm and ranch in central South Dakota, Knight has held a variety of political and lobbying positions. Immediately prior to joining NRCS, he headed up lobbying efforts for the National Corn Growers Association. Prior to that, he worked on the conservation title of the 1996 farm bill for Sen. Bob Dole. Before that, Knight lobbied for the National Wheat Growers Association and also worked on the staffs of several other prominent politicians. Recently, Knight spoke with Delta Farm Press on a wide variety of subjects.

Q: There are reports that funds for some of the conservation programs are being held up in Congress. Can you set the record straight?

A: We're in a mad rush towards the end of the fiscal year to make sure that we have wisely and appropriately allocated the funds for various programs we got additional funding for in the new farm bill. Last Friday, we got the released funds for the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) and the Farmland Protection Program — $323 million.

In the Delta, the WRP program has been one of the most used and sought after programs we have. It's been very important for converting some low productivity land back to wetlands. The WRP got $270 million of the $323 million. That should give us the ability to enroll up to 250,000 acres in WRP.”

Q: How much money for conservation programs was put into the new farm bill total? We're hearing $17 billion.

A: Off the top of my head, I believe it's nearly $18 billion. It equals an 80 percent increase in funding for conservation. This is the largest single increase in funding that conservation efforts for private land have ever enjoyed.

Regarding EQIP (the Environmental Quality Incentives Program), we now have more money to spend on the program in one year than we had during the entire six-year span of the previous farm bill. That should give some indication of the magnitude of the funding increases.

This is vitally important because what's been given to us is a clear directive to prioritize our efforts on conservation efforts to ensure farmers and ranchers can comply with the environmental pressures and standards being imposed upon them at local, state and national levels. Where in the past, folks have needed assistance with manure management, nutrient management and a wide range of conservation issues, we've had too little money to say ‘yes’ very often. Now, we'll be able to really pick and choose and say ‘yes, we can help you’ a lot more often.”

Q: With this incredible jump in funding, farmers are likely to line up in droves to take advantage. Is a system in place to handle the influx of potential applications?

A: If you do a workload analysis of other agencies — say in the case of FSA (Farm Services Agency) — there's a huge workload up front and then it drops off dramatically. NRCS' workload analysis shows something more akin to a bell curve with a gradual increase. That allows us to take reasoned efforts in looking at making sure our capacity is there to meet any additional workload.

Over the last several years, we've had a lot of work done that's just been sitting on the shelf as backlog. In the case of EQIP, WRP and WHIP (Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program) plans were already developed and folks were just waiting for funding. With the additional money, we've been able to allocate that and invest it based on the previous workload.

Now, I'm systematically going through the duties and responsibilities of the current NRCS employees to make sure everyone is focused on the right priorities. The number one priority is implementation of the new farm bill.

Congress gave us the direction and capacity to start hiring consultants and outside vendors in helping to deliver conservation programs. Those are being called ‘third party technical providers.’ Those third party services will be instrumental in delivering these programs. I'm hoping within the next month we'll be able to come up with a promulgated rule showing how third parties can come in and help provide assistance.

Q: Where are these third parties going to work? Will they be in state offices?

A: It's all about working the fields. Some of it may be contractual relationships we already have. For instance, in the Delta, we point to the Mississippi Conservation Commission. They're very vital, aggressive and hardworking. We may do contracts with them to help deliver programs.

For the last couple years, we've done work with Ducks Unlimited to deliver the WRP. I see a continuation of that.

Also, we'll also have a way for the commercial sector — in addition to the state and non-profits — to come in and deliver assistance. We're going to construct training and certification. A company might, for example, be providing irrigation equipment but also wants to provide technical planning needed in putting that irrigation system in. A farmer may be able to contract with the company and get the assistance that NRCS used to provide.

In other areas of the South and Southeast, range management may be the focus. It may be expert help with how to do grazing interspersed with pine trees. It may be a consultant who can help with traditional conservation practices like building terraces. The whole range of services will be out there, but the producers will have more choice.

Q: Did this “local and lean” approach come in with the Bush administration? And why this huge conservation funding increase now?

A: As far as local and lean, it's certainly something that's come in with the new administration. President Bush repeatedly talks about faith in individual decision-making and faith in local government. We're attempting to replicate that through the regulatory process.

As far as increased funding for conservation, this was partially a result of the Bush administration and partly a result of congressional interest which is a reflection of taxpayer interest.

Q: What about the CSP (Conservation Security Program)? Where does that stand in terms of funding?

A: We're moving ahead with developing rules and regulations. I'm very attracted and intrigued by one of the underlying concepts in CSP and sprinkled throughout the additional authorities in the farm bill: support of working lands conservation.

A decade and a half ago, when I first began working on conservation issues, a large majority of our efforts were focused on conservation compliance or idling productive land. We've matured a great deal since then and we now have a set of tools that are there to assist working land and landowners.

No longer must we see a juxtaposition between conservation and the economic viability of a rural community. We're no longer locked into the concept that we must idle huge tracts of land to engage in conservation. We can actually have conservation practices that work hand-in-glove with the need for farmers and ranchers to provide food and fiber for the world and income for their family. I'm very proud to be in the position to help implement that important change in attitude towards conservation.

Q: With CSP, there have been rumblings that some in Congress want to reduce it to a pilot program in Iowa for 2003….

A: There is language in the House appropriations bill that would limit it to a pilot in Iowa. There isn't comparable language in the Senate version. I learned long ago not to predict what the vagaries of the appropriations process would produce.

Q: As mentioned earlier, the South takes tremendous advantage of the WRP. Do you suspect there might regions of the country that will benefit more from certain programs?

A: In total, the direction I've tried to provide to NRCS is we need to be implementing these programs in a way to allow farmers, ranchers and landowners to make prudent business decisions. To the extent we can, we should develop these rules and regulations so that they are size neutral, that they limit distortions in land values, rental rates and a whole host of other things.

We learned a good lesson from the early 1980s from the way the CRP program was administered. It was heavily biased to the Great Plains and thus distorted land values and had a large impact on some communities. We need to avoid that.

In the case of EQIP, there are folks who want those dollars going specific places. For example, regarding the dairy industry, there are those who want the money to go to small operations with intensive grazing rotation systems. They don't want the money going to confined dairies with large livestock waste management systems.

Our employees have been instructed to insure NRCS is influence neutral (regardless of the system producers choose to employ). We will be able to provide technical assistance and cost-share to put in a grazing system for a small operation. Or we can help with a waste management system for a confined operation. It isn't our job to determine what the make-up of a farming operation is. We are size-neutral.

Q: Can you explain CSP a bit more?

A: We're in the process of developing the rules for the program and taking CSP from concept to reality.

Basically, under CSP the intent is to have three tiers of conservation with varying levels of assistance associated with each tier. Moving from tier one to tier two, a farmer will have more assistance but would be required to provide more contributions.

One of the major challenges we'll have is budget estimates have it coming in at about $2 billion. If a vast majority of farmers come in at tier two from the get-go and are interested in it, the expectations could far exceed the budget estimate. That's one of the biggest challenges we have: how to meet expectations with capacity. I'm finding that the interest level in these programs is much greater than many policymakers believed it to be.

Q: What else are you dealing with?

A: Two things. First, we've got a greatly expanded WHIP program. We've already made a couple of changes to, for the first time, utilize the program for emergency habitat measures in times of drought. That was partially driven due to concerns that acres were opening up in the West under CRP for emergency haying and grazing. We wanted to also use WHIP to provide water for wildlife or to leave standing grain for food in habitat plots.

WHIP is a point of pride and is largely a product of Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran from the 1996 farm bill. It's interesting to see how the program has grown and taken off nationwide. WHIP is really utilized by many farmers and ranchers who have added a hunting component to their operations.

Also on wildlife, we will continue to work hard with FSA to push enrollment into CRP. We want more buffers, which I think have been underutilized in the Southeast and Southwest as an opportunity for the recovery of the bobwhite quail. I'm very hopeful that with a few targeted efforts in targeted states, we can enroll more buffer strips and boost habitat for the bobwhite.


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com.