Farm and nutrition programs are often at the forefront of debate over a new farm bill. But conservation programs are also a vital part of the farm bill mix.

In late August, the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Chief Jason Weller visited Arkansas for the first time. While in the state, Weller – who has been in his current position since July -- toured NRCS projects and met with those working with the service.

During an Aug. 29 stop at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s Agriculture Demonstration and Outreach Center outside Marianna, Weller spoke with Farm Press about the NRCS mission, the need for a new farm bill and the toll sequester cuts have taken. Among his comments:

What is at stake in terms of conservation if a new farm bill doesn’t pass?

“The farm bill is crucial for an array of things: whether nutrition programs where people need some support, the Women Infant Children program, the SNAP program, crop insurance or farm support programs.

“If you look at the whole package, the farm bill is crucial. And it isn’t just for rural America. There are urban Americans who really depend on the benefits from that bill.

“But it’s also about conservation.  Conservation is, of course, about the wise management of resources -- water, soil. And that’s great.

“But what I’m here to highlight and what’s so important is that (NRCS programs) also are investments in families, in businesses. They help families stay afloat through hard times like in droughts, weather events, changing market forces, through climate change. They help them be as productive as possible, year to year.”

More on those investments…

“These investments are helping us be as efficient as possible with water use. If they’re getting water on the crops and not over-irrigating, that protects surface and groundwater resources.

“They’re also helping them to be as efficient as possible with nutrients. If we can keep from over-applying nutrients, it means more money is saved and nutrients aren’t flushed out in rains.

“The programs help with energy efficiency. By converting to more efficient use of diesel engine pumps, electric irrigation, poultry houses having better insulation – all across the board, NRCS has expertise that can really help producers be as productive as possible. And that isn’t just aimed at being productive just in the next few years, but far into the future.

“We want family operations to stay in operation and be able to know that their soil and water resources will allow them to grow production and be successful in years to come.”

On the ‘follow-on’ effect…

“Beyond conservation, though, are the things that are being highlighted in the meetings today. While the NRCS helps individual producers be more productive and successful, there is also a follow-on economic effect.

“For example, I met with a producer this morning, Harvey Williams, who has a 280-acre operation growing many crops. He employs around 18 folks and those jobs are an economic benefit to the community. He then sells to organizations that employ others who shell, package and market the produce.

“So, conservation can be the catalyst but the follow-up echoes throughout the rural economy. Ultimately, the food produced is nutritious and safe for those shopping at Wal-Mart, the local grocery store, the farmers’ market.

“Conservation isn’t a ‘nice’ thing to have. It’s an essential thing to have.”

Sequestration cuts

After hearing presentations this morning, one of the concerns these folks have is continued funding. Assuming the 2008 farm bill is extended again, will the sequestration cuts jab these programs?

“Yes. There is a bit of double jeopardy for us.

“The farm bill funds us, it funds all these things we’re doing. Whether it’s through individual contracts or through agreements with organizations or universities, the farm bill allows that to happen.

“With no farm bill it makes it very difficult to provide such assistance. It’s crucial for the USDA and for our partners in the Delta region to have a new farm bill.

“Then, there is sequestration, which is a fancy word for a budget cut. Under current law, we’re looking at another sequester (in 2014). As an agency, we were cut $250 million. If you cut any organization at that magnitude it has an impact to provide assistance to producers.

“That means fewer boots on the ground – fewer conservationists, professionals, foresters, agronomists, engineers, soil technicians. We can’t maintain that presence and so services will be hit.

“Ultimately, the vast majority of NRCS money is actually spent with producers, farmers and ranchers. So, those sequester cuts are impacting our ability to provide good service and assistance.’

Have you seen anything on your tour that needs to be funded that isn’t yet? Anything pitched that is a good idea?

“Absolutely. That reflects the leadership here in Arkansas but also the strong partnership with the agricultural community at all scales. We also have a very good relationship with the university network here in the state.  

“We can’t keep up with demand here in Arkansas. That’s a good indicator that people know the value of these investments here. Basically, there is hundreds of millions of dollars in applications here but we don’t have the money to fund them. That’s from small farms to large farms to watershed development to many other things.

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 “Then, there are organizations like those we’re meeting with today. They’re doing fantastic work and making a real difference in small Delta communities. I’d love to be able to come in and help assure there’s enough technical assistance to allow them to expand their work.”

Anything else?

“I’d ask folks that haven’t worked with us to give us a try. (NRCS) has professionals in every county in Arkansas who can provide expertise and are available to help producers.

“Visit our website or, more preferably, our field offices. Sit down with us and we’ll figure out what will work on your operation. That’s the key – working in a partnership on a voluntary basis.”